Last May, GigaOm Research published an in-depth report I wrote examining a wave of new mobile operating systems that had begun to come to market. Roughly a half-dozen platforms were expected to launch within an 18-month window, several of which appeared well-positioned to give HTML5 a big push and perhaps even pry open the door for mobile web-based apps. The landscape of mobile operating systems looked to be on the brink of substantial change.
But some funny things happened – or, I guess, haven’t happened — on the way to disruption. BlackBerry 10, the highest-profile of the new platforms, attracted precious little attention from the enterprise and the company’s fade to black continued. Mozilla’s Firefox OS is quietly being released in some emerging markets, but we have yet to see any sales figures, and the company appears to have shelved plans for a U.S. launch. Handsets running Jolla’s Sailfish OS have only just begun shipping, and one tepid review finds the platform “a work in progress.” Carriers are suddenly shying away from Tizen, as Fierce Wireless noted a few days ago, and Canonical recently said operators aren’t likely to ship Ubuntu devices until next year.
The internet of things will only complicate matters
Successfully launching a mobile operating system is a daunting task, of course. Platform providers must assemble all the moving parts to a complex ecosystem, from hardware manufacturers to carriers to the mobile app developers that provide value for consumers. And they must compete against the powerhouses of Google, Apple and Microsoft, in addition to all the other newcomers hoping to build their own mobile worlds.
Things are likely to get much more difficult with the onset of the internet of things, too. Many simpler connected devices will run an embedded operating system designed to be compact, power-efficient and highly reliable, and supporting only a single application. But more sophisticated hardware platforms that require an actual user interface and even support for multimedia will increasingly run a mobile OS that offers more functionality. We’re beginning to see that in Apple’s iOS in the Car and Google’s Open Automotive Alliance, LG’s coming lineup of webOS-powered smart TVs and other connected devices like cameras, appliances and wearable devices.
As the market for these connected devices grows, consumers will increasingly want them to talk to each other. That will sometimes be possible across operating systems, but manufacturers like car makers are already choosing which mobile OSes to embrace, as we saw at CES. Consumers, then, will often choose which car, camera or TV to buy based on the kind of phone they and their family members carry. And that will leave little opportunity for manufacturers of connected devices who don’t have any real footprint in mobile
But worldwide smartphone sales are still surging
Apple’s iPhone and Android handsets like Samsung’s Galaxy line have grown to dominate the high end of the smartphone market, where opportunities for most newcomers will be extremely limited over the next few years (especially in North America and Western Europe). But Microsoft’s Windows Phone is making solid strides in Europe, and as my colleague Stowe Boyd wrote recently it’s still too early to write BlackBerry off completely.
But there’s still enormous opportunity in the emerging markets that many of the new and upcoming operating systems are aimed at. Smartphone penetration “will continue on a fast-paced trajectory through 2017” in regions like Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa, according to a recent forecast from eMarketer, with the build-outs of 3G and 4G networks helping to spur smartphone sales and data usage. That leaves plenty of room for a new operating system or two running on affordable devices to grab a healthy chunk of the market. And as those markets evolve, that share can be extended to the internet of things.