Do Mobile OS Platforms Matter?


The big news today is that Nokia is spending nearly half a billion dollars for the rest of Symbian and will turn it into a non-profit organization and open OS. It's got everyone buzzing about how this is an attempt on Nokia's part to "take on" Android (because Vendor Wars always makes good copy), but I think that's a far too simplistic explanation.

Backing up for a second, let's examine what the Symbian OS is, and who it targets. This really depends on who you are. Are you a manufacturer who needs to use the OS to make a device work with all the various pieces of hardware involved, or are you a "third party" who wants to create or use applications which run on the device?

Symbian, the company, has always been much more focused on the former as the OEMs have been the ones paying the fees that kept the company going. The promise was simple - here's a platform which makes your most advanced phones work with little investment. Think about all the technologies in a modern mobile phone - from the various wireless standards like UMTS and Bluetooth, to GPS and even media processing capabilities for video and sound. A mobile OS has to make all that stuff work. It goes beyond just the development work, it also has to do with license fees, etc. If your mobile phone plays back MP3 files, someone had to have paid the Fraunhofer Institute their blood money, or else. For $7 a phone, OEMs could forget about that stuff and just worry about making a cool gadget.

Even that price is expensive though, and manufacturers have always had options about how they get an OS for their phones. They could create some RTOS in house, they could license from any number of white-label OS providers, buy it as a complete hardware/software stack from someone like Qualcomm, or work with Microsoft or Symbian, etc. But now with today's announcement it means OEMs can get something for free that they used to have to pay for. Great! In theory, the Symbian OS is the most robust of the mobile phone OSes out there, and therefore now that it's free, manufacturers will start pumping out Symbian based devices like crazy. Game, set, match for the Symbian OS, right? The company may have essentially been a failure (it's dreams at one point were to take on Microsoft, remember), but the OS as a platform will live on and thrive, and those manufacturers who use that platform will benefit from the shared work, and larger user base as well.

Because application developers tend to target the OS platform with the biggest marketshare, this means that today's announcement is a huge deal for mobile application developers and users, right? Wrong, and that's the point of this post. For everyone besides OEMs which can use the new freed Symbian OS to power their devices, to everyone else it doesn't mean very much.

In my mind, there are different types of OS platforms, created for one of several reasons, broadly separated into monetization, control or shared workload. Monetization - as shown by Microsoft - is that if you control a platform that becomes popular, you can charge money for it indefinitely as it's the basis for many other people's work. Control is what Apple and Blackberry do, where they don't license the platform, but use it to ensure they control everything about what happens on their platform and devices. Shared workload is what the Linux folk are about, where even though they lose control and get no fees, they still derive benefits from not having to do everything themselves, and the platform improves and is used more broadly as well with less investment on their part.

Symbian it seems has attempted to do all of this, first being an licensable platform attempting to be broadly used and monetize based on eventual dominance. Then Nokia wanted to have more control so they created the Series 60 GUI (and others) as a differentiator on top of Symbian, while UIQ was used by others. Then Nokia bought most of Symbian, and tried to license the GUI as well. Now essentially they're giving up on the two former options and are moving to the open model completely in an attempt to both share the work, and to increase adoption of the platform as a whole in face of competition from Microsoft, Apple and Google.

Now, in the PC world, having a platform - whether it's an OS platform like Windows, or an application platform like Oracle or Excel - means that others can develop on and expand the functionality of that particular platform. The more third parties expand that functionality, the greater value the underlying platform has, and the more the owner of the platform can monetize it. Developers won't target a platform with a low user base, which is why broad adoption is so important - so for many platforms giving away the razor in an attempt to make money on the blades is still the general strategy. Pretty simple. And once the cycle of platform, developers and applications is set up, it's incredibly hard to break it.

Except it won't work that way for Mobile OS platforms. Let me explain why:

No killer apps - Smartphones and other mobile platforms like Palm or Windows CE have been around for a decade now, and there's yet to be a killer app for them. A killer app is what makes a platform take off. No killer app? No dominant platform. What's the chances that there will suddenly be an application in today's heterogeneous and interconnected computing environment that *only* runs on one mobile platform and no others? Little to none, really.

No app variation - Oh, there might be thousands of mobile apps out there, but essentially they boil down to a few groups of applications - utility, communication, games, etc. which are pretty much the same regardless of platform. Go to Handango and see a bazillion versions of a calculator and get the idea. (As an aside, I predict when the iPhone AppStore launches in a couple weeks, there will be a lot of disappointment in terms of the quality and quantity of the apps offered).

No one buys apps anyways - Most users of mobile devices are quite happy to use the included apps that are installed from the outset. Most don't even know you can get more apps, and even then the data has shown there's a buying spree for about 2 weeks to a month after a user gets a new phone where they buy shit for it (apps, ringtones, wallpapers) and then they don't bother any more. All the mobile platforms are thus fighting against normal user patterns, and over a piece of the pie that is significantly smaller than the total number of mobile users.

No one cares about which OS - Ever notice that Qik, the video streaming startup that just raised a round recently - is powered exclusively by Symbian devices? Nope? Yeah, no one else does either. In fact, the only time you see it mentioned is when they're promising on a stack of bibles they'll have WinMo and iPhone versions out soon, really. The exception being Apple (as always), the rest of the world really aren't zealots about this stuff.

Anything a Native app can do, Java can do too - You could argue that Java is a platform in an of itself, and if so, maybe it has won and the rest of the platforms are simply variations of GUI and low-level plumbing. Mostly though, what it means is that applications are portable, and developers will port if there's a demand for it, or they'll develop using a technology that's made to run on multiple platforms from the outset.

The Wii lesson - The Nintendo Wii dominates the video game market with its family-friendly vibe and innovative controls, but the other consoles are also doing fine, thankyouverymuch. We've entered an era of multiple platforms and most people understand this. Companies in the video game market that want to sell to the broadest number of consumers target multiple consoles, and mobile developers will be no different.

Even saying all this, I still think that Symbian has a long struggle ahead of it no matter what. Eventually the fact that Symbian is not Windows, Linux or OSX is going to start really affecting the productivity of the developers targeting that OS. OEMs will have to maintain more code which they're less familiar with, and application developers will have to learn and keep current with a niche OS which only matters to a portion of their user base. Symbian has had 10 years to gain some sort of traction, and has only done so by the consistent, and almost irrational, support of Nokia.

It's a huge gamble by Nokia to continue supporting this OS, rather than moving wholesale to a different platform - both the $400MM they're putting down now, and the money they're going to spending in the future to maintain the OS. Just think of how far that $400MM would have sped them along had they chosen to move to something like Linux instead. That said, Nokia still has the dominance in the mobile phone industry to push it in a certain direction. I do think it really will be a matter of if and when other manufacturers embrace Symbian as to its future.


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