It has been almost 10 months since Mundu Radio, an application that allows users to listen to Internet radio stations on mobile phones, was released, but the company behind it is still busy bringing out additional versions of the programme to run on different phone models.
“We have already brought out versions that run on Symbian (an operating system brought out by London-based Symbian Software Ltd), Windows Mobile (from Microsoft) and Palm (from PalmSource). We have just finished work on the Java version and are hoping to bring out versions for software that run on many Nokia OS- and Linux-based phones,” says Ajit Belani, marketing manager for Geodesic Information Systems Ltd, the creator of Mundu.
The application, which was selected earlier this month by visitors Cnet.com (a tech website) as one of the top 100 next-generation web software in 2007, is designed to run on smartphones—phones that usually cost in excess of Rs10,000, are data-enabled and support web browsing.
Geodesic has had to launch several versions of its software because mobile phones run on several operating systems, despite efforts by phone companies to arrive at an industry standard. Symbian is one such effort; the company is owned by Nokia Oyj, Panasonic Mobile Communications Co. Ltd, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB, Ericsson AB, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd, and Siemens. Nokia owns a 47.9% stake in the company, but it has its own proprietary operating system, Nokia OS.
The multiplicity of operating systems explains why there aren’t too many software applications available for smartphones. In the case of personal computers, Windows has a dominant share of the market and it makes economic and marketing sense for third-party software developers to create applications that run on the operating system. Thus, despite microprocessor speeds reaching up to 900MHz in some phones, and memory touching 8GB, applications such as Internet radio, instant messaging and video-chatting are yet to catch up on mobile phones. But now, several phone companies are shifting from company-developed or proprietary operating systems to third-party or licensed ones. They are doing this in an effort to attract software application developers, and ultimately, consumers.
The result of this move by phone makers is growing standardization in the operating systems used in phones. “By the middle of next year, all our models except ultra-low-cost ones which have just voice and messaging features, will move to the Linux or Windows platform,” says Mohan Kumar, vice-president for mobile software at Motorola India Pvt. Ltd. Motorola is part of a consortium that is trying to standardize interfaces on the Linux operating system used on mobile phones. Its other members are: NEC Electronics Corp., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Samsung, NTTDoCoMo Inc. and Vodafone Group Plc. The idea behind this is to make it easier for third-party software vendors to develop applications for their phones.
Even phone makers such as Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson are increasingly jettisoning their own operating software in favour of third-party or licensed software from Symbian and Microsoft. Palm Inc., famous for its pocket PCs and smartphones running the Palm operating system, partially moved to the Windows platform last year, and PalmSource, the company which owns the Palm operating system, is set to merge its OS with Linux and bring out a new system this quarter. The only smartphone maker sticking to its own proprietary system is the Ontario, Canada-based Research in Motion (RIM) which brings out the BlackBerry phones.
The number of phones with sophisticated operating systems is on the increase. Out of close to one billion mobile phones shipped during 2006, around 72.9 million (7.3%) were smartphones, up 50% compared with the previous year. Of this, Symbian had a 70% market share in terms of operating systems. Linux had 20% and Microsoft, Palm OS, and RIM accounted almost equally for the remaining 10%. The linux consortium’s push to create a standardized version of the OS will likely be complete by mid-2008.
Analysts estimate the total number of independent OS-based phones that will ship in 2007 to be in excess of 100 million. Technology research firm International Data Corp. says India will account for around 3.5 million of this. The Indian market for smartphones is dominated by those that run on Symbian such as the Nokia N-Series phones and Sony Ericsson’s Walkman phones.
Motorola’s Kumar sees Linux increasing its numbers from around 20 million, around the world, last year, to 30 million this year, while Microsoft has set out a target of increasing its shipments of Windows Mobile from around 3 million last year to 20 million during the current one. ABI Research, a New York-based market research organization, recently brought out a report predicting a fall in Symbian’s market-share to 46% globally over the next five years in favour of Linux and Windows.
The industry’s move towards standardized operating systems will spur a growth in the software applications market say experts. “As operating systems get more normalized, the number of applications and applications providers will increase; (stardardization will) bring with it a viable business model,” says R. Vijayanand, the India head for Mobio Networks Inc., a Silicon Valley-based utility software maker for mobiles. “For consumers, software on their phones will become richer and more efficient, as we (software developers) will be able to spend more time on developing the application and adding features than on integrating it to different environments (operating systems) and bringing out different versions,” he adds.
Vijayanand also points out that standardized operating systems will vastly increase the capabilities of phone software. Much of the code written into applications is used to counter or factor in the effect of working with different operating systems.