In mid 2007, the release of the iPhone catalysed the long overdue transition from desktop to mobile. Mobile quickly became the holy grail resulting in a mobile platform war with iOS leading the charge. Out of all the platforms that fought it out over the next 3 years, all but iOS and Blackberry OS carried the Open Source badge. MeeGo, WebOS, Qtopia, OpenMoko, Android, Bada, Limo and even Symbian OS all tried to capitalize on the many advantages of pre-existing Open Source assets, methodology or brand. Even though iOS is the anti-thesis of Open Source, it is nonetheless based on the BSD kernel.
By 2010, the tablet form factor was introduced to the mobile world with the release of the iPad and two clear victors began to emerge from the battlefield, iOS and Android. Through its use of an Open Source license, closed governance model and strong service offering, Google was able to take a dominant position in this space as OEMs rushed to integrate Android into their latest mobile and tablet offerings. By Q3 2012, 73% of smartphones sold are running Android whilst 14% are iOS based, the tablet market is split halfway between the two and Samsung dethroned Nokia to emerge as new king of the mobile world (thanks Android). The first battle of the war has ended and the winners are reaping the rewards.
Looking back, it is clear that Android was a success because it was adopted by every single OEM out there. The OEMs jumped all over Android because it was free, competitive and most importantly, wasn’t owned or controlled by a competitor. It didn’t bother the OEMs that Google controlled Android and they cheerfully ignored the fact that they became a conduit for Google services, as that doesn’t constitute their core business anyway. They needed Android to fight Apple and Google gave it to them.
Looking forward, what future do Android OEMs have? By using Android, they have consciously forfeit their right to sell their own services. This obviously doesn’t bode well with the operators or for those more ambitious OEMs. On the software and user experience side, as demonstrated by HTC, the closed governance model of Android makes it extremely difficult and expensive to differentiate. So what’s left for the OEMs? Hardware. Unfortunately, with the recent release of the Nexus 10, Google now has a full product offering that competes directly with the OEM’s brands, sells cheaper, has hardware value-add and runs the latest and greatest Android release (which Google gleefully keeps for itself). Ironically, even Amazon, a service company that competes directly with Google, is using Android. But that has been a difficult and treacherous path for them, how long can they keep it up? I bet not long.
For these reason, a new battle in the war of the mobile world is looming in the horizon. New players are already making an entrance; Microsoft is on the attack with Windows 8, its deal with Nokia and the release of its very confused Surface tablet. RIM are soon unveiling their new QNX based BlackBerry platform with talks of potentially offering to license it out to OEMs. Samsung’s first true Tizen product is long overdue. Mozilla are running full steam ahead with FirefoxOS. ChromeOS is starting to mature. Will WebOS make a come back through HP’s new strategy? Will Amazon reveal a new platform, fork Android or keep using it as is? Will new Open Source based platforms be revealed?
I believe there is a demand for a new platform; something neutral, customizable and free. I believe there is a good opportunity ahead for GNOME. Can it finally become a relevant platform in the mobile space? I think now is an interesting time to ask and come up with answers to that question…