Pressure on iOS is rising in the race for smartphone success

The mobile handset OS market has changed greatly in the last three years. The most striking shifts in the OS landscape have occurred in the smartphone segment, where the factors critical to success have changed dramatically. Rather than seeking the traditional phone-centric experience, today’s smartphone user expects a device to not only offer leading hardware and software performance, but to be more customizable than ever before, through a large number of downloadable mobile applications.

Apple’s iOS appealing to users and developers

The pleasing user interface and consistent user experience of Apple’s iOS, combined with the company’s prowess in industrial design and the popular App Store, have helped the iPhone maintain its sales momentum. But arguably, the greatest success of Apple has been in encouraging developers to create and submit the 225,000 applications that it had on its App Store as of end-June, at which point 5 billion apps had been downloaded. The availability of a broad range of downloadable applications has been a major factor in iPhone’s success and has, to one degree or another, set the bar for what many customers expect from a smartphone.

Apple’s popularity among application developers has been helped in no small measure by iOS’s delivery of a consistent software platform across the iPhone, iPod Touch and now the iPad. According to a conservative estimate, there were 80 million of these devices in the market at end-June, equating to a large base of generally medium-to-high-income users that can be addressed by applications written using the same software-development kit.

On the technical side, Apple has continued to innovate in software: The latest version of iOS added some multitasking functionality and improved HTML5 support of Apple’s Safari browser.

Android a strong challenger

In terms of commercially successful smartphones, it has taken until 2010 for many of Apple’s competitors to catch up. From an OS point of view, the greatest challenge to iOS’ leadership of the smartphone market – and its mindshare among consumers and developers – is another new OS platform, Android.

Android is highly modular and easy to customize, and its popularity among operators has been helped by its relatively short time-to-market and deep integration with chipsets from a number of vendors. These factors, along with the large number of handset vendors that have adopted it and the rapid development of the Android Market store, have strongly boosted demand among users for Android devices.

Android’s main challenge will, in the short term, come from within its own ecosystem. It remains to be seen how the Android platform will deal with the inevitable growing pains that such popularity will bring. Platform fragmentation is already a problem, with several OS versions and vendor-specific UI layers present in the market. Google is looking to address this and, at least in the medium term, the platform’s popularity with users and operators will guard against the remote risk that the firm would decide to fork it, branching off new versions from the standard one.

Smartphone OSes fighting to improve their positions

In light of the success of these two relatively new arrivals, the more established smartphone OS platforms – BlackBerry OS, Symbian and Microsoft – have been revamped and updated with new features, and the platform providers have realigned their strategies to reflect the market.

RIM’s BlackBerry OS 6.0 was launched less than a year after the appearance of 5.0. The new platform offers a UI/home-screen redesign and better integration of applications. Perhaps more important is the inclusion of a WebKit-based browser for the first time. These improvements, together with the vendor’s two application stores, should help RIM better address the consumer market while keeping the loyalty of its enterprise users.

Symbian is the largest smartphone-OS platform by volume of handsets in the market. But it has spent much of the last two years reorganizing itself and making the platform open-source. Although Symbian has long supported technically advanced features such as multitasking, its poor UI and application-development environment have meant that consumers now view it as inferior to iOS and Android.

With Symbian 3 now fully open-source, it seems that much of the hard work is done. Membership of the Symbian Foundation continues to grow, and particularly noteworthy is increased interest from Asia. But since Symbian 3 does not yet match the performance of competing OS platforms, Symbian 4 will have to deliver.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 (WP7) OS was announced at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2010, and the first devices based on it are expected to hit the market in 4Q10. After the limited success of Microsoft Windows Mobile, the failure of Kin and the decision by a number of leading device vendors to adopt Android, WP7 is the company’s latest attempt to reverse its declining share of the smartphone market by putting greater emphasis on the user experience.

Microsoft built the OS from scratch, giving it the opportunity to inject some innovation into it. But its advanced hardware requirements – which entails a high-cost bill of materials – and lack of an application store mean that its appeal will be limited, at least in the short term. Failure with WP7 would see Microsoft fall farther behind in the increasingly important smartphone segment.

WebOS, Bada and MeeGo show potential

Among the less-dominant smartphone OS platforms, three are particularly notable: WebOS, Bada and MeeGo.

WebOS’ innovative combination of an easy development environment, high-quality apps and an engaging user experience gives it great technical credentials in the smartphone market. But its appeal has been limited by the poor commercial success of Palm’s initial handsets and the late launch of its App Catalog. It remains to be seen how new Palm parent Hewlett Packard will use its recently acquired asset and how the platform will evolve.

Samsung’s Bada platform is a new addition to the fray. This semiopen proprietary platform is intended to replace the company’s proprietary SHP platform, giving consumers the benefits of a more-open platform while enabling Samsung to retain overall control. But Samsung’s key challenge will be to attract application developers to the platform and hence boost its popularity with consumers.

Meego, announced at MWC 2010, is the product of collaboration between Intel and Nokia. With that pedigree, it must be taken seriously. But its road map indicates that handsets or smaller-sized mobile Internet devices based on the platform won’t become available until end-2010, and it is likely to take a number of years for it to gain popularity.

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