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China Unicom readies mobile OS

Squaring up to Symbian, asking Apple outside

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China Unicom is planning to launch its own mobile OS, taking on Apple and everyone else in a market presently dominated by Symbian and Ovi.

The new OS will be Linux- but not Android-based, and called "Wophone" as the Wall Street Journal reports.

Wophone handsets will be manufactured by ZTE, Huawei, TCL, Samsung and Motorola, not to mention HTC. The platform will come with its own application store, and is intended to transition the operator's 150 million customers to its 3G network.

Nokia's Ovi store certainly dominates in China. New figures from IResearch report that 65.2 per cent of Chinese app store users regularly peruse Ovi's shelves, which is second only to China Mobile's store which attracts visits from 57.7 per cent of mobile users.

The Android Marketplace lags well behind with less than 14 per cent bothering to visit, while even the Windows Marketplace manages to pip the iTunes store in popularity (11.1 per cent, compared to 9.4 per cent).

So the question isn't why not Android, but why not Symbian. The answer remains the same - control over the platform and application distribution.

Companies all over the world are looking at the way that Apple has grabbed so much of the value chain, and are asking why they can't do the same thing. The same envy created Samsung's Bada and Vodafone's abortive incarnation of "360" as a platform, and now it's spawned Wophone.

Which is all the more surprising considering that China Unicom's 3G network is based on W-CDMA, just like those in Europe and elsewhere. That should give the company access to cheaper handsets thanks to the economies of scale enjoyed by those manufacturing to the W-CDMA standard, while the other Chinese networks have to create variants to suit their incompatible 3G technologies.

But economy of scale is easy to achieve when you've got more than half a billion customers (as China Mobile has), and to China Unicom the attraction of cutting off Apple, Google and Samsung obviously outweighs the cost of going it alone. ®

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