Who wins the Phone/PDA OS Wars?

Operating systems are all the hype in the PC world and lots of companies want to get a good market share within the wireless space, especially in the new smartphone category. Microsoft is pushing their Smart Phone operating system, Danger has developed a new OS for their Hiptop, Palm is throwing theirs into the playing field and of course there is Symbian. Developers have a lot to choose from.

Editorial notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com

First, what is so special about these operating systems? The main thing here is that they are designed to run on mobile phones, powerful mobile phones but still mobile phones. In a sense, they are smaller PDAs. They are smaller, have less screen space, less memory and less CPU power. They also need wireless capabilities and mobile phone manufacturers want to be able to differentiate themselves from the competition. The operating system needs to support things like Bluetooth, WAP, EMS, MMS, SyncML, IPv6, W-CDMA, GPRS, GSM, HSCSD and probably a lot more. All that with the least memory and CPU power possible.

So who’s trying to conquer the market?

Microsoft is moving into the space with force and they are arguing that their operating system for mobile phones, Smart Phone, will give users a well known interface, favorable in the corporate market. Smart Phone has already been adopted by Sendo in the Z100, but the phone has been delayed many times and developer version have come on sale for close to $1000, which is a lot for a mobile phone, even if it has a lot of capabilities. The phone looks very powerful and will likely work amazingly well with MS’ .Net platform in the future, but it is unlikely that users will see a lot of Smart Phone based phones in the market any time soon, mainly because of the lack of support by major companies in the space. MS made a reference design and platform available which should easy introduction. I see a much better market for PocketPC 2002 Phone Edition, which enables PDAs to be outfitted with mobile phone capabilities and the XDA introduced by O2 is a very good example of a PDA phone, the best I have seen as of yet.

Danger is short from introduction of their Hiptop device, which looks very promising and will give carriers the option to brand it for their own network. The German T-Mobile network will soon launch the Hiptop for example. Due to being based largely on Java technology, the device already has a good developer base. What surprised me, is that in a recent interview on news.com, Danger mentioned that once they have sold several millions of their devices, they will likely focus mostly on getting their operating system to the market, partnering with device manufacturers, which want to use their operating system. The java part, gives it a good leg up there, but still, it’s a not an easy task.

Many manufacturers already have their own operating system for phones like Nokia’s NOS, but these are not really targeted to become real Smartphones with extended capabilities. Rather, these are, and will in the future, be used in standard mobile phones with or without data capabilities.

Palm is already running on some mobile devices, most notably on Handspring’s Treo line, which has received a very warm welcome. Recent sales numbers revealed though, that sales are in the tens of thousands, which is a really tiny number in an industry that just surpassed a billion users. Nokia reconfirmed in their June 20th strategy update that they plan to ship tens of millions of Java enabled mobile phones this year with surpassing the 100 million mark in 2003. Interesting to note here is that there is a J2ME engine for Palm available, again, putting Java into the picture.

The one company that is not yet on the radar of many people is most likely Symbian, spun off by Psion. What should be noted with this company is that it already gives away the OS that will be used by many of the big players in the industry today. Symbian is owned by Psion, Motorola, Panasonic, SonyEricsson, Ericsson, Siemens and Nokia. With Nokia having a market share of 37%, Motorola 15%, Siemens 9% and Sony Ericsson 6%, you will see that the above group has something close to 70% of the current market of mobile phones. They are all banking on Symbian to be their OS of choice for future smartphones with devices like the Nokia Communicator, Nokia 7650 and the SonyEricsson P800 already having been announced. And again, all these devices are Java capable.


Looking at the above information, if a developer needs to choose now, they should choose Java, which will, or already is, the standard for mobile phone applications. For developers favoring C++, Symbian looks like the most promising architecture and while other manufacturers might brake into this space with a different operating system, they are unlikely to be able to displace Symbian as the most widely used OS on mobile devices in the near, or even far, future.

About the Author:
Oliver Thylmann is a management student and freelance journalist writing mostly for infoSync, an online publication which specializes in covering the handheld and wireless consumer sectors with a global span. In the past few years, Oliver was running BeNews, the premier news site for the BeOS community.


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