Differing approaches to the mobile platform game offer different strengths and weaknesses - Mobile World Live

Differing approaches to the mobile platform game offer different strengths and weaknesses

03 JUN 2011

The last few weeks have seen the MeeGo Conference, and (another) preview of Microsoft’s next-generation Windows Phone platform, codenamed Mango. While the operating systems are clearly at different stages of their development, the approaches behind them could also not be more different. The former is clearly in the corner marked ‘open,’ and the latter is a proposition tightly controlled my Microsoft. And history shows that in the mobile industry, neither approach is necessarily better than the other.

Speaking at the recent MeeGo conference, Jim Zemlin, director of the Linux Foundation, talked-up the weaknesses of a closed environment. “You have software and platform vendors who are still selling their platforms to device makers, but they are also taking revenue opportunities by creating their own app stores. And now operating system vendors and platform providers aren’t just letting ISVs [independent software vendors] write anything they want and provide this to anyone directly, they are creating gateways through app stores, where they control what is on the platform and collect fees for that,” he said.

For device vendors, Zemlin also said that adopting an open platform equates to “dramatically expanding your opportunities.” On this theme, he noted: “You own the platform. You can create your own app stores. You don’t have to pay royalties for anyone for it. You can devise your own services on top of it. You are in a totally new game, and a much better game, a game where you can control your future.”

But the mobile industry does not have a great track-record when it comes to embracing ‘open.’ Due to the incredibly competitive nature of the market, and the differing demands of a number of ecosystem participants, often a number of different players start pulling in different directions, leading to fragmentation at best, or stagnation at worst.

There is also an interesting conundrum here. In order to gain success, a platform needs volume, to create a virtuous circle which includes customer demand, developer support and product revenue. To drive this volume, it needs deep support from vendors, to deliver appealing products to market. But if one vendor plays too much of a role, there will be accusations that this company is dominating the proceedings, which is likely to impact the levels of commitments exhibited by smaller rivals – there are few examples in this industry of companies riding to success on the coat tails of others.

Arguably, Intel may be the ideal candidate to drive MeeGo forward. Its position in the value chain is fairly clear, as is its intention – to sell more processors. Unlike Nokia, it will not be offering its own products, and therefore will not be competing with other potential ecosystem participants. And Intel also has deep pockets, to support development in the period before revenue is generated.

With Windows Phone, Microsoft is driving the development, in order to generate revenue. There is no talk about openness or collaboration, and Microsoft keeps a tight control of what its partners are doing in terms of hardware. There is no doubt who is calling the shots.

And Microsoft is driving development of Windows Phone hard. It has made more than 500 enhancements to Mango – although many of these are incremental – and the updated OS will be available twelve months after the initial release. Encouragingly, it will also be available to customers of existing devices, a path that Microsoft has not always followed in the past.

The big test will come once Nokia has begun offering Windows Phone devices, assuming the Finnish company is able to generate significant traction in the market – and while this was once not open to question, its recent profit warning means that the company is losing a lot of ground in the medium-term. Will Microsoft be able to maintain the support of its other partners, once Nokia has ramped-up its smartphone efforts based on Windows Phone?

Already there is talk that Nokia’s second-generation Windows Phone devices will include proprietary enhancements, and that Microsoft is set to provide concessions to Nokia on the app store front which have not been afforded to the others. Are HTC and Samsung, for example, likely to stand for this two-tier approach – especially when they are in the second group?

So far, there are no real examples of a platform where a single vendor has made up the bulk of the shipments, and others have been happy in a tier-two role. The closest has been Android, where HTC and Samsung have performed especially well, and Sony Ericsson and Motorola lead a pack of aggressive challengers. But it is still early days for this platform – and in its early days Symbian also had an impressive number of licencees, including the handset giants. The question is how the market will play out over time, as vendors look to the most effective ways to differentiate products on form and features, in order to avoid an unwelcome price-war.

There will also be a significant mindset challenge for Nokia. While Symbian was initially commercially licensed by an independent company, before being an open-source platform, before becoming a Nokia-owned effort, all the way through Nokia has been the driving force. When Symbian Ltd was a commercial operation, it was Nokia that was paying the most royalties, and it has always had the largest Symbian OS device shipment numbers. However much it argued otherwise, it always had the loudest voice.

The situation with Microsoft is different. Unlike Symbian OS, Nokia played no role in defining Windows Phone from the outset. Unlike Symbian OS, it does not hold shares in the company delivering the platform. Unlike Symbian OS, it is not currently delivering any devices using the OS.

And while it has undoubtedly secured a good deal in getting Microsoft to share initial device development costs, its future is dependent on Microsoft’s development of the platform going forward.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members


Mobile World Live

Mobile World Live is the online service dedicated to providing the mobile industry with daily news coverage & analysis of the biggest global market developments.

Read more