The Looming Battle for the Future of Mobile Devices

An Apple iPhone and a Motorola Droid smartphone
An Apple iPhone and a Motorola Droid smartphone

Mark your calendar for an all-out global war among mobile operating systems starting late this year.

These OS platforms will run the new generation of tablet computers and smart phones. Apple (AAPL), with its iOS running the red-hot iPad and iPhone devices, has a commanding position at the moment. But the market is about to get flooded with competing devices from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), Samsung, Asus, Cisco (CSCO), Best Buy (BBY) and probably Motorola (MOT) and Nokia (NOK).

It Matters Who Wins

They'll run on an expanding range of operating systems, including ones that are already popular (namely, Google's (GOOG) Android) and others that you've probably never heard of (MeeGo, anyone?).

Who wins matters. This is the kind of war that the Windows OS won on desktop PCs in the 1980s, setting up Microsoft (MSFT) for a couple of decades of dominance in the personal technology arena. It seems improbable that a single platform will similarly end up dominating mobile computing, but most markets won't tolerate more than two or three global standards. We wound up with two major PC platforms (Windows and Mac), three cell phone systems (GSM, CDMA, TDMA), two videotape formats (VHS, Beta) and so on.

At a recent tech conference, Kevin Johnson, CEO of Juniper Networks (JNPR), told me he thinks there will be more than two but less than 10 viable mobile platforms. Jon Rubenstein, the former Palm chief now at Hewlett-Packard, says: "It's reasonable to have three to five (mobile) operating systems out there."

The Lineup of Competitors

Some of the major players in the fight:

  • Apple, of course, with the iOS for iPhone and iPad

  • Android is catching up fast in number of users and apps. Dell, Cisco, Best Buy, Asus and others are all coming out with Android-based tablets in coming months.

  • Hewlett-Packard with its WebOS platform, which it got when it bought Palm earlier this year. H-P recently revealed it will start selling a tablet based on WebOS early in 2011. Only H-P machines will run WebOS, much as only Apple machines run Apple's iOS.

  • Microsoft's Windows 7 will be available on a version of H-P's tablet and on tablets from Fujitsu, Dell and others.

  • Research In Motion (RIMM), maker of the BlackBerry, is expected to unveil a tablet based on its proprietary platform.

  • MeeGo, which is the descendant of two previous platforms called Maebo and Moblin. (They sound like names of characters from The Hobbit.)

Who's probably going to win? Ultimately, users don't care about platforms -- they care about what they can do on a platform, i.e., the apps. That's where the winner will be found -- in the apps.

"An OS needs a huge base of developers making lots of apps consumers want, and that in and of itself will drive OS trends," says Ralph de la Vega, who runs AT&T Wireless (T).

Who's Got More Apps?

Developers will choose to create apps for the platforms the most consumers and enterprise users buy. At the moment, users are voting overwhelmingly for Apple and Android, and a little for BlackBerry. Developers are responding in kind. Apple's iOS App Store has in excess of 225,000 applications, and the Android Market has more than 70,000. After that, the number of apps for the other platforms falls off a cliff.

So right now, it looks like just two operating systems will dominate the mobile Web -- iOS and Android.
Microsoft might hang in there, but more as a mobile platform for businesses, not consumers. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that making a successful Windows-based tablet is now "job one" at Microsoft -- though Microsoft has spent more than a decade trying to make a popular Windows tablet, with little success.

And the other platforms? Unless they get a huge influx of popular apps, they'll die. Consumers will avoid devices that can't do the things they want to do.