Networks, handset makers vie for mobile dominance

Who's left standing following the WebOS train crash?

WebOS is all but dead, and died without apparently leaving a gap for its competitors to fill, but the bloodbath of mobile platforms isn't over despite the clearing field.

LiPS, LiMo, Moblin, Maemo and MeeGo are all dead or dying, while Symbian fights on like some jungle soldier who has not been told of the surrender. Access is still awaited, the Else handset having been killed off last year despite its slick video launch, so the field seems clear for a four-way battle between Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM: though Bada and Brew are still lurking nearby.

SavaJe was one of the first platforms to go: the Java-based platform pre-empted Android but only just made it onto a handset before the company behind it ran out of cash. SavaJe worked hard to sell the Java dream to network operators, but it is worth noting that the strongest players still standing have done little to appease those parties. It is the platforms that counted the operators as friends which are now being recognised as casualties.

LiMo (which swallowed LiPS) was backed by Vodafone, among others, as the operators' platform of choice. The idea was to wrest control back from Apple and Google, and Vodafone did launch a couple of LiMo handsets before it bowed to the inevitability of Google's domination. These days Vodafone 360 is a collection of Android utilities, but it was once a hardware platform too.

Operators used to dictate handset platforms, and features. By selectively applying subsidies and in-store promotions they could tell the manufacturers what technology to use*. Apple turned that around with the iPhone, but much of the industry failed to notice the change of wind and still clung, and in some cases still clings, to the operator-as-overlord image of the industry.

Vodafone's 'unique gift'...

It's hard to understand how much power the network operators had, or how they let that slip through their fingers. Vodafone's CEO, Arun Sarin, told the world that no-one could touch Vodafone customers for money without Vodafone's say-so – he called the billing relationships a "unique gift" that "nobody can take away from us". Less than four years later that billing relationship certainly isn't unique any more.

The greatest example of the change is the attitude of Microsoft, who worked incredibly hard to appease operators with the Windows Mobile platform. Microsoft was desperate to get into the mobile business, saw market leaders Nokia and Motorola very close to the operators and so emulated that model – taking its cue from operators to drive the platform, with predictable results.

Now Microsoft has another approach: damn the operators and do things the way you think is best. It's an idea straight from Apple. Redmond isn't quite so declarative about it, but the focus is the same – appeal to the end customer and deal with the operator where necessary.

Nokia's decision to sign up with Microsoft can be seen as turning its own back on the network operators. While Symbian boasted "Operator Menus" and re-definable soft keys, operator input into Windows Phone is limited to a pre-installed Hub, and even that can't do much.

What loyalty?

Operators clearly aren't in the driving seat any more. Handset subsidies remain important but competition has created a reasonably level pricing structure. End users are picking devices based on the manufacturer's brand rather than loyalty to a platform or killer application: as long as the smartphone can play Angry Birds, read Facebook, and keep Twitter up to date then the rest is just fluff.

Which is why Samsung's Bada devices continue selling, better than Windows Phone handsets if Gartner's latest figures are to be believed. Bada is as closed as Apple, but without the kudos associated with the Apple brand. Bada hasn't the plethora of applications, but it has the ones that matter (all approved and signed by Samsung).

Bada is sold on the Samsung brand, itself buoyed up by the company's high-end Android handsets and tablets. Bada users buy Samsung, not Bada.

A similar strategy has been adopted by Qualcomm's Brew MP, descendent of the operator-seducing Brew which delivered a closed platform apparently under the operators' control. Brew MP is a basic platform, comparable to Bada but available for license by manufacturers who can white-label the Brew marketplace to remove all Qualcomm branding; applications can be sold across devices, and operators, without the customer ever seeing the Brew brand.

So why aren't manufacturers beating a path to Qualcomm's door? Because manufacturers still think customers care about which OS is being used. Nokia might be right that having a Microsoft logo will help it shake off the baggage of the last few years, but few people are buying handsets 'cos of the Google logo on the back.

Which is bad news for Google as its control over the Android platform starts to slip. Android is already being forked to remove Google's influence, by the Chinese internet search giant Baidu, and will probably get forked again.

Baidu emulates Google in many ways, and operates in a location where Google's servers (based in Hong Kong) are mysteriously unreliable and prone to failure (which, if you're a government trying to control access to uncensored media, is much more effective than outright blocking).

Baidu provides mapping and email services, just like Google, and is about to launch its own incarnation of Android named QiuShi.

QiuShi will, we assume, be integrated with Baidu in just the same way that Android is threaded into Google's offerings, and will no doubt be quickly adopted by manufacturers selling handsets into China. Having a proper fork also opens the idea to others, and one can imagine other local search engines launching Android variants (GooOS anyone?) or different businesses getting involved.

The choice of which platform to use comes down to the manufacturer, who will want to ensure the preservation of its brand above all else. Some, like Apple and Samsung, will also try to make money selling apps and other services, but most will be happy to take the cheapest platform that can play Angry Birds, post to Facebook and keep up to date with Twitter. These applications are developed by commercial companies for the platforms which will give them enough users, and therefore income, to return the investment.

Platforms like Brew and Android should be able to rely on the safety in numbers, their global audience should assure that important apps get ported. Samsung Bada, Apple and RIM have all managed to attract significant developer interest so far, but they'll need to maintain scale.

Microsoft still has most to prove, both in terms of scale and developer community. Redmond has very deep pockets, and so can pay to ensure all the important applications are available for its platform – though it won't be able to do so forever. Six platforms is still probably more than the industry can support, so they'll be another fatality or two before things settle down. ®

* As Head of Enabling Software this was your correspondent's role at O2.

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