Operating systems currently targeted at handsets are about to go cross-platform, and maybe in a big way. That could lead to very important opportunities for a lot of existing players in the mobile value chain, from hardware manufacturers to app developers to venture capitalists.
Word leaked out last week that Microsoft will streamline its mobile OS and deliver only three chassis designs with its upcoming Windows Phone 7, which is due out late this year. The move will allow Redmond to deliver a more consistent user experience across devices, as Kevin Tofel noted at jkOnTheRun, and the first Windows Phone chassis design will debut on smartphones in time for the 2010 holiday season. Because that first chassis design will be targeted at touch-only gadgets with big screens, the strategy also enables the company to address the crush of tablets that has already begun coming to market.
Microsoft’s strategy mirrors that of Apple, which opted to use iPhone OS to power its upcoming iPad. The savvy decision will give iPad owners instant access to Apple’s vast App Store, and it has already sparked a stampede of developers looking to create apps for the device, according to Flurry. (If you’re among that crowd, here are my tips on how to avoid a flop.) What’s more, it appears that Apple plans to build on that momentum by bringing the iPhone OS to more platforms, Ars Technica noted, including perhaps the Apple TV.
Cross-platform growth is also a key component of Google’s strategy with Android, which is already being deployed on non-phones. Archos offers an Android-based tablet, MIPS is putting Android into set-top boxes, and Japanese consumer electronics companies are working to embed the OS in a wide range of consumer-electronics devices.
But Microsoft’s plan for WinPhone contrasts with Android, too, in that Microsoft is making it a priority to try to manage the evolution of its OS. That’s something Google can’t do effectively with its open source platform, which is already leading to troubling fragmentation problems. Those are issues Apple doesn’t have to worry about, of course, as it sells its own hardware running its proprietary OS. So if Microsoft can deliver a knockout OS that can attract developers, it — like Apple — may actually have a leg up on Google as mobile operating systems evolve to other platforms.
Most of the early development of non-phone mobile apps is directed at tablets, and for good reason. Microsoft, Lenovo and Motorola, among many others, are all joining Apple in the tablet space. And the new gadgets will offer big, bright screens and improved touch navigation, addressing two major problems that have plagued mobile data for years.
It’s true that there may be far less demand for tablets than vendors hope, of course. Microsoft and Fujitsu, among others, have failed to gain traction with tablets, indicating that consumers are unwilling to spend much on hardware that seems complementary rather than a must-have. But the success of the iPod touch proves that there’s a market for a small touch-screen device that can access the Internet but can’t make cellular calls, and the Kindle has made the case for e-readers.
With price points in the range of $500 or so, tablets could certainly gain traction as gadgets that sit on the coffee table (or bedside stand, or kitchen counter) and serve as a primary Internet device for casual, in-home surfing. Google could leverage its experience with books to power an e-reader that more fully taps the power of the Internet, and there surely is demand in the enterprise world for a powerful connected device that’s easy to use — which is Microsoft’s sweet spot. (Well, except for the “easy to use” part.) MeeGo — the unfortunately named offspring of the recent Nokia/Intel tie-up — may be able to gain traction as a tablet-friendly mobile operating system, as well, if mobile-specific platforms fail to adequately address the new wave of hardware.
It’s highly unlikely that the new wave of gadgets will immediately take flight, although we may see a hit gadget over the next year or so. Instead, we’ll see a gradual evolution as hardware makers and software developers fill niche markets with devices optimized for specific use cases. But players who are already actively involved in the smartphone space should already be getting prepared.