Phone operating systems – how many is too many?

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Posted by Bryan Hunter on 26th May 2011

Why are there so many phone operating systems out there? Does the industry want to give us such choice or are phone companies just jostling for top spot?

Comparisons are made between computer OSs and phone OSs, but how did we get so many phone OSs compared to PCs? Is it a good thing? Is it necessary? And where are we going? Let’s try to answer these questions and hopefully kick off some healthy debate…

As I write this, we have Nokia’s Symbian (soon to be put to rest), Nokia’s Maemo, Intel’s Meego, Microsoft’s (er, Microsoft and Nokia’s) Windows Phone 7 and of course the old Windows Mobile. Confused yet?

Then we have RIM’s Blackberry OS, Apple’s iOS, HP/Palm’s WebOS, Google’s Android and a Google Chrome OS in the pipeline. And let’s not forget Samsung’s Bada, aimed at their cheaper handsets. That makes a grand total of 11 operating systems! Not counting systems from emerging markets.

Now my question is; how many is too many? Let’s look at both sides of the argument:

11 operating systems is just fine!

Phones aren’t computers: Phones have become the most personal gadget we own. Computer’s on the other hand are relatively homogeneous and were designed to accommodate multiple users per workstation. We all feel comfortable jumping from PC to PC knowing that they’re roughly all the same. Phones, on the other hand, are intended for our own personal use. There’s no need to design the OS to accommodate multiple users. Once you learn how to use your OS, it’s tough luck if your friend can’t navigate their way around it.

It’s early days: We’re in the early days of OS development. Phones have only recently evolved movie players, touch screens, GPSs, gyroscopes and compasses. Operating systems are still playing catch-up in terms of the user interface for these features. A classic example of this was the Nokia N97 running the Symbian OS. Nokia tried to force a non-touch screen OS onto a touch screen phone and didn’t do a good job. OSs will evolve as the phones do and phones won’t stop for some time yet.

When a phone isn’t a phone: Then there’s cross over into tablets to consider. As phones become bigger and tablets become smaller, their boundaries will blur and operating systems will cross over between both devices. Meego, for example, runs on tablets, phones and in-car entertainment systems. Android runs on phones and tablets. And Google is considering a Chrome OS for tablets, which will undoubtedly cross back over into phones. This adds to the argument for plenty of OS choices.

Phones change: While computers have remained static (bar improvements in processing power, memory and storage), phones evolve on a daily basis. The average computer user will buy their PC for 5 or more years, upgrading parts where necessary. A modern phone user will upgrade the whole device every 12-24 months. With this pace of change, speed of obsolescence and desire for novelty, it’s little surprise so many choices of OS have appeared. And forget customer loyalty. If you drop the ball, you’ll lose customers like hairs on Prince William’s head, as Nokia is well aware of.

We’ve gone phone mad: Lastly, mobile phones are now one of the most-owned objects on the planet. According to a recent statistic, there are now more phones than people capable of using them. With close to 7 billion phones in the world, I argue that leaves room for plenty of OS choices. Can we really see a world of 7 billion phones, with only 3 or 4 OSs?

Ok you say, but what about the other side of the coin?

11 operating systems is way too many!

Keep It Simple Stupid: The iPhone is the perfect examples of this. Your 5-year old daughter and your 105-year old grandmother can pick up an iPhone and start using it. Some techies might say Apple has dumbed down the mighty mobile phone, but most ordinary people don’t want so many options and menus. In it’s heyday, Symbian was the opposite of this. It was the OS of choice for the power user, the business person, the phone lover. You could drill down into menu-option after menu-option and tweak to your hearts content. Unfortunately, Nokia failed to adapt to the growing market of the masses and Apple has stolen their thunder. If the average person wants simplicity from their phones, do they really want so many choices of OS?

Apps mean cash: Hardware makers are all scrambling to create the killer OS. They see the cash cow that is Apple’s App store and to a lesser extent Android’s Marketplace. If you create an OS, you can create an app store. And it just might make you rich. This may mean, however, only a handful survive the stampede.

It’s a gold rush – They say that if you want to get rich in a gold rush, you should sell the spades. OS creators believe that in the end only a few OSs will survive and if you’re not in, you’re out. No one really knows where it will end, but everyone’s afraid of being left out. Apple has proven with their walled-garden, that control of the OS means control of the media. And that means big profits.

Pity the poor developer – Some app developers have become incredibly rich, but most haven’t. One-man-band developers have a hard time developing for one OS, let alone 11 of them. Obviously they’ll focus their efforts on the top OSs (by market share), but what’s the opportunity cost of not developing for the next best OS? And how do they balance that with the actual cost of developing for that OS? What a headache.

Pity the poor OS owner – Turning back to Nokia. With multiple OSs and OS versions in their portfolio, they’re forced to split their attention across their customers, carriers, hardware providers, programmers, marketing departments, developers and so on. With OS consolidation, they can focus their resources on one OS.

Personally, I’m all for choice and competition. Perhaps I go against industry analysts, but I say 10 or so operating systems is just fine. I don’t want to see devices that are so vital to us be controlled by an oligopoly which drives out creativity, innovation and excitement. Hopefully the world of open source and the growing power of consumers through social media will prevent that from happening, but who knows, the fun has only just begun.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. Feel free to leave a comment below.


Bryan Hunter


Phone Tips and Tricks

Written by: Bryan Hunter
Bryan is the founder of Phone Tips and Tricks which provides hundreds of tips, tricks and guides for smartphone users. While he isn't updating the website and blogging about phone related news, he will usually be found tinkering on his own wonder gadget.

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3 responses to “Phone operating systems – how many is too many?”

  1. Excellently written and I must say as I wholeheartedly agree with everything you pointed out.

  2. Thanks Moritz. My first ever blog, so the feedback’s appreciated 🙂

  3. You are doing it right. Finally someone who is not supportive of this or that but sees the wider image. I’d also like every bit to succeed. The consumer would be winning this way 🙂
    Also someone in due time will have to finally break the providers heir. This will probably cost the respective company it’s live but then again we’ll all be free.

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