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Choice is good…just not too much! That is certainly the case in the mobile sphere where not too long ago there were perhaps seven ‘viable’ mobile OS contenders (iOS, Android, Windows Mobile/Phone, BlackBerry OS, webOS, MeeGo and Symbian). Fast forward a couple of months and with HP dumping webOS, Nokia favoring Windows Phone over Symbian and developers saying ‘nogo’ to MeeGo and the landscape has consolidated to a more palatable top four. The other major development has been Google’s (pending) acquisition of Motorola Mobility, which has all major Android supporters (Samsung, LG, HTC, etc.) scurrying to evaluate alternative options. In fact Samsung is rumored to have shown interest in acquiring WebOS or MeeGo.
So what equates a successful mobile OS strategy? Is Apple’s appliance model where it controls much of the ecosystem – including OS, hardware and content/application validation and distribution – the only option? Can mobile hardware vendors compete without owning the software stack or at least parts of the stack? Clearly the strength of the mobile OS and associated tools and services are critical. However, the real value of the platform is perhaps tied closest to its developer support both in terms of sheer size and its ability to innovate on the platform. According to research recently conducted by VDC Research among mobile developers the greatest gap in developer tools and resources – in terms of the difference between importance and satisfaction – was around the existence of a strong developer community and eco-system. Not surprisingly Apple scores best here in comparison to other platforms – especially in relation to the commercial value of the platform to developers. This issue is likely one of the key factors driving Google to acquire Motorola Mobility. While the Android platform enjoys unprecedented growth and support (it has quickly emerged as the leading Smartphone platform) it has also suffered from platform fragmentation and support issues.
What about the enterprise? The consumerization of IT and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trends are real and driving IT organizations to support a broader group of mobile platforms. However, mobile OS platforms have varying degrees of enterprise ‘maturity’. Apple’s iOS needs to be increasingly considered as an enterprise platform – not only for individual liable devices, but also increasingly for corporate/enterprise issued solutions. Conversely, Android cannot be (yet?) considered a serious enterprise mobile platform. Issues relating to security and platform fragmentation are serious enough obstacles for enterprises investing too significantly in this platform (beyond BYOD support). What is critical in the enterprise – robust security, platform stability, lifecycle support – is almost irrelevant to consumers. Earlier in the year Android was considered the front runner to displace Windows in a number of enterprise mobile segments driving ISVs to redirect development resources towards Android platforms. Today that scenario – considering the dissonance surrounding the Android platform – looks less clear. Moreover, the recent OS consolidation and dissonance surrounding existing platforms is providing Microsoft and its soon to be released Windows 8 solutions an unexpected ‘Window’ of opportunity.
What this boils down to is predicting the outcome of the mobile OS landscape is perhaps a fool’s errand. What is clear is that we are not going to see a repeat of the WinTel model so dominant on PC platforms. This means that software investments will increasingly become a cost of entry for device vendors to differentiate and effectively compete.
The one factor the will likely influence mobile OS and mobile development more than any other will be the decision between native and web-based mobile apps. Today native apps are superior in most scenarios in terms of overall user experience and functionality. However, web-based HTML5 apps are starting to gain mind share. Mobile developers participating in our annual survey fully expect to be more involved in mobile development projects that feature web centered activities and HTML5 in general, and view the mobile web as a potentially lucrative area to target – however, developers also rightly recognize that mobile application requirements are varied, and that while web apps built around HTML5 are an appropriate and effective solution for many application scenarios, that they are indeed not suitable for all situations. A critical advantage that favors native applications is the full access to device APIs and access to app store distribution channels – while HTML5 applications can access several device side APIs, it cannot and will not be able to match natively developed applications (at least not in the near term).