Is There Room for a New Mobile OS?

Just when we were starting to worry that the OS world was becoming ossified around three increasingly-competent options, making it very boring for OS enthusiasts, along comes a re-energized mobile computing market and a furious land grab among established players and new entrants. Samsung, the #2 handset maker by marketshare, is releasing a new mobile OS called Bada and will be vying to become the seventh major mobile OS in the market.First of all, as a Sopranos watcher, I just can’t take the name seriously, though I’m seeing potential for some great NSFW co-marketing with Microsoft’s search engine.

The conventional wisdom on the mobile OS market is that it’s already crowded, and unlikely to be able to sustain six players over the long run, making Bada tragically late to the game. Engadget published two editorials on this subject recently, one proclaiming that WebOS will be the last smartphone OS and another, proposing that though there isn’t room for so many players in the long run, that doesn’t mean that more can’t jump into the fray and eventually succeed. This second article points out that in the early 80s there were a multitude of personal computing platforms (Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, Texas Instruments, Apple, Timex/Sinclair, to name a few) but that once the standard for viability of a platform shifted from out-of-the-box capability as a hobbyist platform to availability of third-party software, the market coalesced around a couple of platforms that had the most developer support and the largest library of software.

This is an astute observation, and it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the mobile OS market will follow this trajectory. But there are several important differences to keep in mind: First, in the early to mid eighties, there were maybe a few million personal computer users worldwide, with a dozen companies, small and large, fighting for their business. (Today there are 1-2 billion PCs).

The mobile phone market is different. There are already over three billion mobile phone users, and though most of those phones are not the kinds of computing devices that these seven OSes are built for, there’s easily potential for the mobile computing market to reach and swiftly exceed the size of the personal computer market within the near future. This means that the pieces of the pie for even a niche player are huge compared to our last reference point for a crowded OS field, the 1980s-era personal computer era. Even the most low-end mobile phone is a computing device, with rather respectable capability by 1980s standards, and even the most low-end mobile user can understand and appreciate the benefits of having a handset with more capability. The purveyors of sophisticated mobile computing devices don’t have to blaze a trail through the wilderness with a machete like the PC pioneers did. Their market needs only to be tempted by useful features and low prices.

Second, compared to a PC, a mobile computer’s “mission statement” is almost always going to be narrower, meaning two things: OS design will place a much higher priority on simplicity, and the number of apps needed/used, and their complexity, will by necessity be smaller than a typical PC user’s. If you have any doubt about the difference between the PC software ecosystem of the past and the mobile computing software market, just look at prices. The average (mean) iPhone app costs less than $1, and very few cost more than $10. Even some of the most expensive iPhone apps, some professional tools and the GPS ones, for example, cost less than $100. There are only a few outliers.

Also, since we’re already looking at the web applications and cloud computing revolution in the rear-view mirror, the decades-long platform wars based on availability of essential apps in the PC space will likely never play out in mobile. If an app is ubiquitous and necessary these days, it’s likely that it’s a web-based app, and therefore accessible to all users, regardless of platform. Even in Apple’s vaunted and bloated App store, most of the truly useful apps are basically just wrappers for web-based services (Evernote, Dropbox, Skype, Tweetdeck, Yelp, Facebook, YouTube, Weather, various movie listing and to-do apps). Developers of these services don’t have to re-write their whole app for each platform. They just have to tweak the front end. The “app” is the service. So mobile computing users will very likely use fewer apps, and those apps will be much easier to develop and maintain for half a dozen platforms, if necessary. In a lot of cases, a popular web app (like Twitter) will have an API that lets independent developers build multiple mobile front-ends to their service, making supporting even a fringe OS easy.

So back to Bada. Samsung’s press release says:

Based on Samsung’s experience in developing previous proprietary platforms on Samsung mobile phones, Samsung can create the new platform and provide opportunities for developers. Samsung Bada is also simple for developers to use, meaning it’s one of the most developer-friendly environments available, particularly in the area of applications using Web services. Lastly, Bada’s ground-breaking User Interface (UI) can be transferred into a sophisticated and attractive UI design for developers.

which is a lot of nice-sounding nonsense, and I’ll believe it when I see it. But Samsung has 21% marketshare in the handset market, so even if they don’t succeed in licensing their technology to anyone else, they still have a huge potential market for their own OS. Now, in smartphones, Samsung trails Nokia, RIM, Apple, and HTC, with only 4.3% share. But that’s still 1,589,000 units in one quarter. Let’s compare that to the 1980s: how many Apple II computers were manufactured? 5-6 million total. So Samsung sells more smartphones in one year than all the Apple IIs sold between 1977 and 1992. And even if Samsung’s smartphone growth only happens at the expense of its own handset installed base, we’re still talking about huge numbers.

Of course, Samsung could utterly fail to make it in the new, hyper-competitive mobile computing market. But the likelihood of an upstart mobile OS succeeding on its merits, or failing due to its shortcomings, seems more likely than what played out in the PC space, where success was based, seemingly, more on inside dealing and skulduggery than quality. This is particularly true when the “upstart” OS is supported by an industry giant like Samsung.

This could be wishful thinking, of course. OSNews’ official editorial position is that the more viable OSes are out there, the better. Having the big boys jostle for position with no dominant player means that the pace of innovation will be more rapid, and it will be easier for new and fringe platforms to be able to survive at the margins. Furthermore, a heterogeneous mobile OS market will even benefit the desktop PC ecosystem, since eventually, as the continuum between mobile and “personal” computers becomes filled in and blurred, today’s “mobile” OSes will become indistinguishable from the “personal computer” OSes, and we may find in ten years that we have a dozen major computing form factors of various sizes, with just as many viable OSes to run on them. So let’s give a big OSNews welcome to Samsung’s new OS. Bada Bing, bada boom!


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