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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Smartphone Operating System Wars: Who will win?

author photoMany moons ago, when PCs (personal computers) were new (displacing “big iron” mainframes the size of rooms), there were dozens of operating systems competing for dominance. Microsoft’s MS-DOS (and IBM’s PC-DOS) weren’t guaranteed to win, nor was Microsoft’s Windows in the second round.

Today smartphones are new, displacing complex PCs with simple-to-use devices that are much easier to update and much more difficult to muck up with viruses or settings conflicts. The smartphone operating system that wins the war will bring big benefits to its owner and set the standard for years to come. The historical parallels are significant.

During the early days, Amiga, Commodore, MacOS, DOS, and others competed for attention from the hardware makers or worked only on their own hardware (most people selected their PC and operating system as a package, not separately, in the same way as people today select a smartphone that is already loaded with an operating system). DOS was not originally open (it was designed for only the IBM-PC), but when Compaq and other vendors started to make their own PCs that could run MS-DOS, the benefits to Microsoft were huge.

A few years later, when graphical operating systems were beginning to take off, Apple had a significant headstart with an interface that was significantly better than its competitors. However, since it was only available on Apple’s own hardware it was eventually eclipsed. What was to eclipse it – Microsoft Windows or IBM (and Microsoft’s) OS/2 - was not clear initially. One of the reasons Windows won out was because Microsoft was able to get the most developers interested in writing for Windows and because of their attention to backwards compatibility.

The parallels are striking. The established player had a strong position (then IBM, with its PC and OS/2, now Microsoft, with its Windows Mobile) but couldn’t break through. Other players, like Apple with its Newton and Palm with its PalmPilot, came and (for the most part) went.

Microsoft won the broader PC war but Apple was able to survive and do well in a part of the market. It looks like history might be repeating for Apple, but not for Microsoft.

Apple again was the first to a mass-market consumer hit for a web-capable smartphone with the iPhone. The BlackBerry followed a similar strategy to Apple in its PC days by focusing on one thing (corporate email) and doing it really, really well (BlackBerry’s web browser and app store never got the focus that massive battery life and email got, meaning it was great at what it was designed for). The market now is starting to fracture: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Symbian, Windows Mobile and others are competing with more likely to emerge before the market settles (Nintendo DS phone anybody?).

Android is backed by a company that doesn’t make phones (yes, they designed the Nexus One, which I have and like, but I think they should stick to letting HTC make phones). Microsoft’s Windows Mobile is the other major player not backed by a hardware company. The remainder, more or less, are backed by hardware makers.

Microsoft has a significant advantage with Windows Mobile in its installed base. I have Windows Mobile with a Chinese-English dictionary app, Pleco, that I would love to keep using on a smartphone (which is why I almost bought the HTC Touch Pro2). Microsoft, though, announced that Windows Mobile 7 will not be backwards compatible. That is, they are going to launch a brand new product and not leverage their existing strength of their application base. Maybe it will work….

Here at Skritter, we really want a mobile version, and until Apple announced that Flash was verboten on the iPhone/Pad, our plans were to use Adobe’s tools to make an app for that. We still want to. We really, really want to. Ninety million people have iPhones or the iPod Touch and people are buying iPads in droves. Both form factors would be just awesome for using Skritter to learn Chinese or Japanese characters on. But it looks like every other platform will support native Flash first, and so it looks like what we’ll do first is redesign the layout to work with Flash on mobile devices (simplifying it so it fits on a small screen) and working to get the performance up. (This is looking very promising!)

Porting our code to the iPhone will be a big project, but with some hard work it should be doable (and Nick really wants to do it). Given iPhone's huge installed base (and everyone asking time and time again about an iPhone version), we really want to. Business-wise, it is a highly-requested feature that many users want, it will give us a spot in the App Store (hopefully with a good rating), and it will get people to use Skritter when they are out and about (letting more people see how cool it is).

But learning a new platform (MacOS – OK, this part is pretty easy), a new language (Objective C), and porting code is a time-consuming proposition, which is why we’ve not done it already. With the lengthy review process Apple has we would want to do a lot of testing before we release and we’d need to be a lot more cautious about releasing updates (if we screw-up now with a site update we can fix it right away, not so with an app). At the end of the day we don’t know if the increase in subscriptions and/or download fees would let us break even in a reasonable timeframe.

So, for now, we will optimize our Flash app for mobile so that Android users (for now, with Windows Moble, Symbian, BlackBerry and other soon to follow) can use Skritter on the go. We’ll see how this works out for us and for our users and try hard to build the case for the iPhone app. Will we have it this summer? No, almost certainly not. Will we have it by the end of the year? There's a good chance. Will we have it by the end of 2011? I'd bet on it.*

(* but I can't promise it)

I’ll leave you with a few thoughts from Nick:

Skritter must go mobile. Despite my cautiousness, it is ridiculous that we're still web-app only in a world where mice predominate on the web and fingers/stylii rule the mobile jungle when our app is all about handwriting. We must invade the jungle!
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