Some background to start.
The vast majority of smartphones are powered by ARM CPU based systems on a chip (SOC). ARM architecture is tightly controlled so you see only minor variations between the capabilities of Apple Ax, Qualcom Snapdragon, Nvidia Tegra, Marvell XScale, Texas Instruments OMAP and Samsung Exynos - mainly in areas such as the amount of RAM, speed of graphics co-processors, speed/number of cores or hardware features like NFC and, GPS.
ARM architecture runs iOS, Android, Firefox/Chrome OS, Windows Phone/Mobile/CE/RT, BlackBerry, QNX, Nokia Symbian, Ubuntu Mobile/Touch, Bada, MeeGo, Mobile Linux, HP/LG WebOS and Tizen to name a few of the 35 more popular variations.
A few smartphones are powered by Intel’s x86 Atom (Android can run on it) which should not be written off just yet as new designs may rival ARM for low power consumption and provide x86 (Windows) compatibility and processing power which may be necessary for tablet take-up in the enterprise space.
So all that means is that hardware has become commoditised. If the component cost of iPhone 5 is say $230 and the Galaxy S4 $240 the manufacturer's selling price is mainly a matter of differences in support, warranty, marketing, Telco incentives and less a matter of software differentiation - they all do pretty well the same thing. Conversely an Android smartphone can cost under $50 to make if the clone maker simply uses a standard SOC and off the shelf Android i.e. no custom skins or features. To be clear – hardware no longer is a major differentiator – it is all about style and software.
Android, a Linux/Apache based OS is owned by Google. In 2007 it helped found the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of hardware, software and telecommunications companies devoted to open standards. Google makes some money from nominal licence fees (to fund development and to set and enforce basic standards) but makes much, much more from Google Play (700,000 apps and 25+ billion downloads). Android is also creeping into smart TV’s, fridges, games consoles, cameras, DVD/Blu-ray, VoIP phones, wearable computing (watches and glasses) and tablets. What happens in the smartphone arena will spill into the consumer tablet arena (but not necessarily the enterprise segment).
As Android conservatively controls 75% of the smartphone market (at Q4 2012) there can be no argument that it has won the consumer segment of the smartphone wars.
But the term ‘war’ is now more about income from patents and apps stores than market share as each OS wants features and apps unique to its own ecosystem. So a one fingered gesture may be patented by one company and a corresponding two fingered by another – this was not Google’s original intention for Android. (Reminds me of the old joke about alligators and draining the swamp).
Essentially there is a reasonably limited way to do the same thing and when one handset maker adds a new feature you can be sure that another will emulate that a.k.a. Samsung Knox versus BlackBerry Balance or Samsung eye movement tracking versus LG smart video eye tracking etc. Ultimately it will all end up as part of Android’s feature set.
Apple is next most successful with its ARM/Linux iOS. Windows is next most successful with its ARM/Phone OS and Blackberry currently fourth with its ARM/QNX OS in what may well eventually be a three horse race.
So why are there are more than 35 Linux based variants out there? Simply each manufacturer wants to do their own thing in the hope that it will differentiate their product. It is not because of the nominal licensing costs for the OS that is for sure.
If you are interested in some of these operating systems and some inevitable conclusions read on.
Bada is perhaps the next most known OS developed by Samsung however earlier this year it announced that it would be merged with Tizen (another Linux based mobile OS).
Tizen/Bada is popular in China and evolved from MeeGo. In theory Tizen will run all Android Apps and as it is an open source OS governed by the Linux Foundation and supported by Intel it may be hard to stop Google limiting apps to Android only devices. Perhaps Tizen’s best feature is very high level support for HTML 5 which is a good thing. It also has the strongest chance of knocking off QNX which currently controls 60% of the world’s automotive computers.
iOS from Apple appeared in late 2007. It was originally called iPhone OS X and after licencing the name iOS from Cisco it has been known as that. It is a POSIX compliant OS based on Unix. It has limited common code with OS X used for Macs. Apple truly controls this code and it only runs on Apple devices. In 2011 it had 60% of the smartphone market but that has dropped to around 20% by the end of 2012. It has 43.6% of the tablet market which is expected to drop under the onslaught of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and the uptake in Windows 8 tablets in enterprise. iOS relies on concentration of the market (monopoly) in one owner to get the economies of scale to continue to grow the iOSsphere.
LG has just licensed webOS from HP and it is yet another Linux/ARM based OS. iTWire has covered this so I won’t go into depth but for LG to differentiate itself and get out of Samsung’s Android dominance it needs to go the way Samsung is going with Tizen.
Windows Phone 8 is based on the original Windows CE with elements of NT 8+. It supports ARM processors and is closest to the Windows desktop OS (which does not support ARM – their RT version is starting to). Microsoft has invested too much in this OS to let it go and it is growing in popularity in the enterprise space helped by tight integration with Windows 8, Office, Outlook/Exchange, the vast commercial software repository and Nokia’s decision to use it for their smartphones.
BlackBerry 10 is another Linux/ARM variant using QNX as the base. BlackBerry 10 is a proprietary OS (like iOS and Windows Phone) that has a good chance of surviving in the enterprise space where apps are not as important as the security ecosystem.
Symbian powers a number of Nokia phones (as it has for Lenovo, LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Siemens). It was first developed in 2001 and last really updated in 2010. It is not based on Linux and its ecosphere is now too small to consider it a future contender even for proprietary handsets.
Firefox OS is a Linux/ARM based OS designed by Mozilla that uses HTML5 based apps to do everything via an always on data connection. Expect to see smartphones (well really more dumb phones that can do things) later in 2013. I like the idea (like Chrome Books) but am not sure everything can be done via the cloud.
What all these OS have in common is that most use Java or C (C++) as their app language and most use similar hardware (ARM) to allow for ‘relative’ ease of cross compiling, notwithstanding that each may have different hardware features i.e. one may have a camera, one a GPS etc.
For the nerds Wikipedia has a table comparing some mobile OS - when all the features are tabulated you see there is not a lot of difference between any of them. For the idealist/purist in me I would hope that one standard emerges but for the paranoid in me I would hope that it remains at least a three horse race.
What is clear is that consumer features are driving enterprise take-up. People want one device to do all.
Predictions – mostly within the next two years.
Samsung will release Samdroid (Tizen) as a normal upgrade to its Android smartphones. Samdroid will access special hardware features only on Galaxy class handsets that are not available to Android users i.e. Knox. At the same time it will also be careful to maintain app compatibility with Android but developers will create special versions of the best apps for SamDroid that do more. Samsung will make more from its SamApp store then it does from its phones. We will begin to see the 75% Android consumer market share be more like 80% Samdroid and 20% Android. In car parlance think of this as Hyundai.
Apple won’t change from iOS and won’t do anything other than what it does now. Its 20% market share will decline a few percentage points as it becomes the prime target for its Enterprise segment. In car parlance a Mercedes.
Microsoft will beef up its integration between the desktop and smartphone via SkyDrive, security, mobile device management and most importantly Office and Exchange. Whether it reaches 15% market share as some brave analysts predict will depend on the combined clout of Nokia and other handset makers in the enterprise space. In car parlance a Ford or GM.
BlackBerry is currently fourth and while I like most if not all things about the BB10 OS I think it will discover that there is no money in hardware and shift focus to making its features an enterprise suite for iOS, Am/Samdriod and Windows 8. In car parlance is risks being an Edsel – a technically superior car that never sold (the right car at the wrong time)…
The real advances now are in adding more functionality to handsets via software because as one chip maker said there are no more quantum, only incremental leaps in chips on the horizon.