The fragmentation of the mobile landscape

Phone makers search for their own non-Android solutions

Mobile hardware manufacturer HTC's admission yesterday that they may be seeking to buy their own mobile operating system raised some interesting speculation, most notably around the possible salvation of the webOS platform recently dumped by HP.

This news comes at a time when rumors are swirling around about the fate of MeeGo, and whispers that Samsung may be dropping Windows Phone 7 devices in favor of its own Bada operating system.

There's a lot of "ifs" running around here, but if all of these moves were to come to pass, it would be a clear sign that Google's one shared Android OS for everyone will be seriously challenged. If that's the case, will Android even remain open?

Google's model has been successful for two big reasons: the platform itself is app-rich and provides a good experience, and because it was the opposite of Apple's "we own the device and everything on it" model for the iPhone. But Microsoft's purchase of--er, partnership with--Nokia is not only a competitor's move away from Android, it's also a move towards the Apple iPhone way of doing things: one mobile platform stack tightly controlled by the mobile vendor.

After the announced acquisition of Motorola Mobility by Google, the makers of Android, the other mobile hardware companies have to be looking around for home-grown operating systems of their own, on the off chance that Google is about to favor Motorola devices.

And what do you know? They are doing just that.

Suddenly, what was once a two-OS game amongst the non-Apple competitors (Android and Windows Phone 7) is now opening up to be multiple operating systems, one from each vendor.

If this is what we're heading for, then things are going to start sucking very soon, unless you're Apple.

That's because a diversification of operating systems will seriously weaken the application ecosystems of all of these mobile platforms. In a world where Samsung has Bada, HTC has (let's just say) webOS, and Nokia has Windows Phone 7, that leaves Android on Motorola and any other small vendor that cares to pick it up. So here's the question: who's going to want to build apps for all of those platforms?

Third-party vendors? Hardly. It's hard enough to get them to port apps across from iOS to Android (or vice versa), let alone porting to Bada, webOS, and WP7. Not to mention that given all the licensing and patent battles going on, vendors might be leery of where they want to put their apps.

I can't see where any of the individual vendors will succeed in this climate, with so much differentiation between mobile operating systems. Unless one of them gets lucky with a runaway hit that attracts a disproportionate amount of app developers, all of them will be struggling along with poorly stocked app stores.

This means customers will go to the platforms with the apps: Apple with iOS and (presumably) Motorola with Android. The rest will also be weaker also-rans.

I can also very easily see a situation where, if no other vendors are interested in Android, Google decides to close it up (except for the parts it can't, like the Android kernel) and effectively implement the Tivoization of Android.

Admittedly, this is a drastic set of outcomes, and it may be that all of these vendors will keep an Android product or two in their inventories to hedge their bets and make some money, too. But all of this scrambling around playing OS musical chairs has to make us wonder what will happen when the song is over.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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