Two operating systems run more than 95% of the world’s computers, yet dozens of systems are behind the 2.5 billion mobile phones in circulation—a situation that has hampered the growth of new services, say industry executives and independent experts.
“There are too many operating systems already and more are coming, making things complicated for smaller software firms,” says Tony Cripps, a senior analyst with Ovum in London.
Mobile-phone operators are watching with interest as the new applications they expect will increase profit but will only make it to a limited number of phones as software developers struggle to keep up with different operating systems. Having multiple systems is also time-consuming and costly for operators, who must configure the phones they sell.
Vodafone,, the world’s largest mobile phone company, in terms of revenue, has been leading a push to limit the number of operating systems. In November, it declared that it would eventually sell phones that run only on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, Symbian Series 60 and Linux. For over a year, NTT DoCoMo has concentrated on Symbian, in which Nokia has a nearly 50% stake and Linux.
“What Vodafone did by choosing a few was inevitable,” said Andy Brannan, a Symbian executive vice-president.
Arun Sarin, the Vodafone chief executive, said: “We need to reduce the number of operating systems on phones. With fewer operating systems, it will be easier for content delivery.”
Most mobile-phone manufacturers have an internally-developed software that runs their simpler phones. But smart phones or high-end devices run on operating systems created by other companies.
Brannan said that only the most basic phones would run on operating systems developed by the phone manufacturers in the future. Last year, two-thirds of smart phones sold ran on Symbian’s operating system, an increase of about four percentage points from 2005, according to Canalys, a consultant and market research firm based near London. Microsoft was second last year with a 14% market share, slightly less than the year before, followed byResearch in Motionwhich makes the BlackBerry, with 7%, and Linux with 6%, according to Canalys.
Having so many operating systems makes it expensive to make software, said Faraz Hoodbhoy, the chief executive of PixSense, whose software facilitates the sharing and saving of multimedia content made with camera phones.
“It’s not like with computers, where anybody who has an Internet connection can download your software,” he said. “The barrier to innovation is higher in the mobile world.” What operating system a software developer decides to concentrate on first will most probably depend on what geographic area and type of user it is targeting, said Cripps, the Ovum analyst. Windows Mobile is stronger in North America and with business users while Symbian dominates in Europe, especially with nonbusiness customers.
But despite the moves by Vodafone, DoCoMo and other operators, the huge size of the mobile-phone market will ensure that smaller operating systems survive, says Cripps.
“I don’t see convergence of the operating systems happening soon,” says Fabrizio Capobianco, chief executive of Funambol, an open-source software company that has developed an email application for mobile devices that has been downloaded more than one million times.
“Vodafone is trying to standardize by going with three operating systems. But, with iPhone on its way, they will definitely have at least four,” Capobianco said, referring to the new phone that Apple will begin selling this year. The success many analysts think iPhone will be, shows how rapidly the fortunes of mobile-phone manufacturers and the operating systems that run their handsets, can shift.