Officially On The Tech Radar: The Mobile Arms Race

Although it clearly matters, this isn't just about everyone-mobile-but-Apple vs. Apple. This also is about the war for the hearts and minds of mobile developers that's about to erupt as those in grave danger of becoming mobile has-beens seek to restore their luster, the latest stars look to extend their momentum and, in some cases, their advantage, and the players stuck in the middle hope to avoid becoming collateral damage. Yeah, the iPhone has got some mojo. But there are really no clear winne

David Berlind, Chief Content Officer, UBM TechWeb

September 11, 2008

10 Min Read

Although it clearly matters, this isn't just about everyone-mobile-but-Apple vs. Apple. This also is about the war for the hearts and minds of mobile developers that's about to erupt as those in grave danger of becoming mobile has-beens seek to restore their luster, the latest stars look to extend their momentum and, in some cases, their advantage, and the players stuck in the middle hope to avoid becoming collateral damage. Yeah, the iPhone has got some mojo. But there are really no clear winners yet.Software ecosystems are very efficient when it comes evolution and natural selection. I never stopped to think about their vicious cycles until James Gosling, the inventor of Java, explained it to me one day. They're pretty simple. Developers will hitch their skills to some software platform if they see that platform getting market traction because the platform is essentially a distribution channel for selling their skills or wares. As more developers enter a platform's ecosystem, more applications become available for that platform, which in turn increases the popularity of the platform with end-users. More end-users adopt the platform, which in turn results in a bigger distribution channel, which takes us back to step one, where even more developers enter the ecosystem, looking to capitalize on that channel.

This is a time-honored tradition in the tech industry. Microsoft's Disk Operating System (DOS) lived by this rule, as did Windows. Novell's NetWare was a textbook software ecosystem, as has been Java. Of course, the winners never relied on "nature" alone to dictate the outcome. Plenty of other forces, some natural, others not, were at work as well. Open source as a legal and cultural regimen is a serious game changer that has permanently altered the fortunes and playbooks of every ecosystem. Looking into the crystal ball of the mobile market, companies like Google with Android and Nokia with the Symbian Foundation are depending on the open source approach to secure popularity with mobile software developers as well as other mobile stakeholders (e.g., the handset manufacturers).

Five years ago, if you were a mobile developer, you basically had two mass "distribution channels" for your skills and/or wares. Java and Palm's Operating System dominated the wireless handset landscape (as third-party programmable handsets went).

Microsoft was looking to spoil the party with Windows Mobile (formerly the smartphone version of the PocketPC OS). I remember Steve Ballmer boasting at Gartner Symposium of how the motto of the Windows Mobile's team was that "software matters" and how this would end up being the differentiator that pushed Windows Mobile to supremacy. I think Apple has proven that software matters many times over (not just with the iPhone, but initially with the interaction between iTunes, the iTunes Music Store, and iPods). For several years after Ballmer said that, having used many Windows Mobile devices, I never thought Microsoft's mobile solutions bore out that truth and I still don't.

I'd be remiss not to mention Research in Motion here. Five years ago, RIM was wisely going after the corporate market, knew that mobile messaging was absolutely the key to success in that market, and its neutrality between the two dominant messaging platforms (Microsoft Exchange Server and Lotus Notes) was probably more important than the RIM operating system as a development platform. The market opportunity was narrow compared with the broader consumer and business market, but that didn't keep RIM from paying close attention to its platform which, along the way, cut over from something more PalmOS-like to a flavor (RIM's flavor) of mobile Java. That decision instantly gave RIM access to tens of thousands of Java developers and vice versa.

During those days, I routinely hounded then PalmSource (the PalmOS company) chief David Nagel about ditching the old PalmOS and going more the Java route. Whereas the PalmOS ecosystem boasted of 300,000 developers, the Java ecosystem was at 3 million (admittedly, not all mobile).

Today, there are simply no clear winners.

For starters, the old incumbents simply don't have the mojo they once had. As developer-accessible programmable mobile platforms go, Java is likely still the leader in terms of presence on the number of existing handsets in the global market. But despite the channel it represents, developers are flocking in droves to the iPhone. The iPhone is in no way the market leader from an installed base, but it's clearly flying off the shelves at a pace that developers cannot turn their backs to.

One reason has to do with a problem that has always dogged third-party software development in the mobile market: despite the market penetration of platforms like Java and the PalmOS, the best user experiences that developers could deliver into those platforms simply wasn't compelling enough to motivate buyers to part with their money. For example, millions of Java handsets were in the market. But hardly anyone made the time or effort to investigate or buy third-party apps to put on those handsets. Granted, there were other factors at work here. For example, it was practically impossible to load a third-party application onto a Java-enabled handset.

Today, getting an application onto an iPhone is as simple as transferring a song from the iTunes Music Store to an iPod has been. That, in addition to the cost of the applications (many are less than the cost of a ringtone) and their highly visual user experiences, finally has people (including businesses) opening up their wallets and it's for that reason that developers want in on the iPhone ecosystem: it's the one where money is actually flowing and the host (Apple) makes it easy for developers to reach the market through its applications store.

While Apple gets a first-to-get-it-right star (a common occurrence), Google and Microsoft have been quick to respond with imitation (or is that flattery?) as both launch similar stores of their own. Need proof of how important the developers are, though? Then study the words of Google mobile platform program manager Eric Chu who, in the Official Android Developers blog, wrote:

When we talk to developers, a common topic is the challenge of getting applications in the hands of users. That's why today I'm happy to share early details of Android Market -- an open content distribution system that will help end users find, purchase, download, and install various types of content on their Android-powered devices....

....We chose the term "market" rather than "store" because we feel that developers should have an open and unobstructed environment to make their content available.

Tomorrow's successful mobile platforms will have very accurately manipulated the knobs and levers that affect developers and their ability to participate. But can every platform win? Off the top of my head, in no particular order, at the very least, there's Java (and let's group JavaFX in with that for the sake of simplicity), Windows Mobile, the new Linux-based PalmOS (chaperoned by Access), Flash Lite from Adobe, BlackBerry, the iPhone, Google Android, LiMo (Linux Mobile), and Symbian. And those are just the programmable platforms that will be embedded in handsets. We haven't even scratched the surface of the rest of the programmable stuff in the mobile world. For example, Yahoo's Blueprint (being shown at CTIA this week) which, from the sound of things, sounds an awful lot like the same thing as Yahoo's Go 3.0 which I looked at earlier this year (includes a video).

How on earth can all these platforms succeed? The Symbian Foundation, which this week added Opera, Sharp, South Korean mobile operator KFT and six other members to its roster, already is politicking the mobile industry about intensifying fragmentation, the sort of cross-platform approach that mobile developers will need to consider, and the likelihood of contraction in terms of number of mobile platforms over time. From CTIA, InformationWeek's Marin Perez today reported:

As the number of mobile operating systems increases, will fragmentation become a major issue for customers and developers?....Multiple expert members of the Symbian Foundation addressed this question and more during a roundtable discussion Wednesday at the CTIA conference in San Francisco....

....While the goal of the foundation is to make Symbian as ubiquitous as possible, experts said fragmentation of the market will be unavoidable.

It's facing competition in the "open" arena from Linux-based offerings from Google's Android and the LiMo Foundation, not to mention established players like Microsoft's Windows Mobile, Apple's OS for iPhone, and the BlackBerry OS.

Because of the diversity in hardware, there will never be one unified language, said Oren Levine, product market manager in Nokia's S60 group. But Levine thinks developers will have significant incentive to make their applications work on multiple platforms due to the size of the overall mobile market.

Christy Wyatt, Motorola's VP of software platforms and ecosystems, agreed with Levine, and pointed to the iPhone as an example. While it holds a small percentage of the overall handset market, the success of Apple's App Store provides a strong financial allure for developers.

Additionally, Wyatt said she expects to see a "sharp contraction" in the number of mobile platforms in the future, including one consistent version of mobile Linux.

For obvious reasons, the Symbian Foundation needs to be spreading a little fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) right now. In my opinion, it's one of the organizations that's caught in the middle and that could end up badly collaterally damaged as the battle amongst the very well-funded mobile buzz leaders Google, Apple, and RIM reaches full crescendo. RIM, by the way, is simply on fire right now. I see way more BlackBerrys than iPhones when I am out and about. When I work up the nerve to interrupt and ask, several strangers have remarked to me that they prefer a hardware-based keyboard. Other people I've talked to say that the BlackBerry also wins on price and availability (on non-AT&T networks). Earlier this week, research outfit Gartner identified RIM as the "big winner" in the smartphone market. According to Reuters via eWeek:

BlackBerry maker RIM was the biggest winner in a slowing smart phone market in the second quarter, roughly doubling its market share from a year ago to 17.4%, research firm Gartner said on Monday.

The market was still dominated by Finland's Nokia Oyj, which sold 15.3 million phones with capabilities such as e-mail and navigation, giving it a 47.5% share. But this was down from 50.8% a year ago as competition intensified in the consumer smart phone market.

"RIM continued to execute well at the consumer level, increasing its global market reach," Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza said in a statement.

Research In Motion sold 5.6 million smart phones in April through June, up from 2.5 million a year ago, as it found new clients beyond its main business market.

The story goes on to report how the gains in marketshare by companies like RIM have come at the expense of Nokia -- the driving force behind the formation of the Symbian Foundation and the open sourcing of that operating system. It's just another reason that I see Symbian as being in somewhat of a vulnerable position.

Heading into the end of this year and into 2009, the market response to Google's Android, which is due to arrive in the market any minute now (on an HTC handset available in three colors, connected to T-Mobile's network, apparently due to ship on Sept 23.) is going to be a blink moment for the mobile industry. The blogosphere is full of commentary about how Android is a nonstarter. I'm not sure that commentary adequately considers how important the mobile market is to Google's growth and success and how capable Google's war chest is of sustaining an effort.

By the time we're done blinking, the war will be on, bombs will be dropping everywhere, Apple will no doubt delight us with its response, and I'm going to really enjoy watching as the battle unfolds.

About the Author(s)

David Berlind

Chief Content Officer, UBM TechWeb

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