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While the recent smartphone struggles of Research In Motion and Microsoft have proven to be main points of mobile media fodder for 2011, the corresponding strengthening of the market positions of Apple and Android have further underscored the shift in mobile operating system business models.
Just a few years ago, the smartphone market was dominated by three main platforms: Symbian, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile. Then, in 2007, everything changed with the release of the first iPhone and the formation of the Open Handset Alliance.
Closed, OEM controlled platforms have always had a place in the mobile market as evidenced by Apple, Blackberry and even Palm once upon a time. The opportunity for commercial mobile application operating systems, however, seems to be dwindling. The acquisition and open sourcing (and ultimate demise) of Symbian left Microsoft as the sole major vendor servicing the domain that relies on a royalty-based business model. So, given this shift and the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the Apple and Android application development ecosystems, can a commercially licensed application OS ever again achieve significant share within the market
The evolving impact of commercially funded, non-commercial OSs
Already, we have seen a search engine company (Google) entrench itself within the mobile domain and subsequently gain traction in other embedded verticals. Amazon’s purported interest in acquiring RIM earlier this year brings this dynamic into even more of a spotlight. The company actually goes so far as to offer advertisement-subsidized versions of its Kindle e-readers, so it is within reason that they could extend this model to the smartphone space if they were to ever enter it. The allure and growth of mobile e-commerce is certainly large enough to attract and support this type of device subsidization, but what would the ultimate impact be on the broader embedded market?
We’ve been talking about the “iPhone effect” on embedded development for years as it pertains to the consumerization of other devices classes and the growing end user expectation for sophisticated touch interfaces. The growth and development of the Android ecosystem has likewise caused many OEMs to evaluate its suitability for a wide range of vertical markets. But could you ever expect end users to tolerate an advertisement pop up or logo on their industrial handheld terminal? Not likely.
Clearly, there are limits to the applicability and diffusion of these new OS platforms’ business models in a number of embedded industries. However, the mobile OS ecosystem has nevertheless been the main catalyst driving change in a number of embedded segments for years and - given the short shelf lives of and time to market windows for smartphones - will likely continue to drive the evolution of embedded technologies in the years to come. That said, considering the innate differences between the mobile phone space and other embedded verticals, can we still rightfully expect the blurring of the lines between these device classes’ OSs to continue or will we ultimately see their delineation once again become more concrete and a subsequent re-stratification of the supplier ecosystem?