March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 09.04

Pick an OS, Any OS

PalmSource, Symbian, Microsoft or even Linux could be the top smartphone OS.
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By Katy Connor




According to a score of recent reports, it seems who leads the pack in standardizing the smartphone operating system (OS) market depends on who you ask. What is agreed upon, however, is that the race will become only more heated in this fast-growing market.

A survey conducted by Mindwave Research found operating systems to be an important factor when companies are deciding which smartphones to purchase; in late 2003, 80 percent of IT managers said that the OS was more important than the hardware brand. Mindwave also states that 75 percent of companies had a recommended standards list for mobile OSs, and Palm OS was found on 88 percent of those lists.

Of course, the high rating of Palm’s OS indicates only a preference, not actual use, and Mindwave’s questionnaire was developed with help from PalmSource.

Other reports in 2004 indicate Microsoft, Symbian and Linux fighting over the small but growing market—only 2 percent, about 10 million, of all handsets shipped last year were qualified as smartphones according to Gartner, which predicts that number to double by the end of this year. In some reports, Palm OS seemed to have dropped, if not out of the pack then temporarily out of sight.

A report from ABI Research in late April claims that Symbian’s OS leads in market share. A subsequent report in May by Arc Group Research confirmed that Symbian had 64 percent of the worldwide market share. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Neil Strother, an industry analyst with In-Stat/MDR, especially since as early as 1998, as many as 18 phones relied on the Symbian OS.

According to the U.K.’s tech Web site, the Guardian Unlimited, Symbian’s success could also be attributed to a fear that Microsoft will eventually dominate the mobile OS as it did the PC. Seamus McAteer, from Zelos Group, echoes this sentiment. Microsoft’s domination of the mobile OS market “would eliminate differentiation from handset hardware,” says McAteer.

But with Nokia’s pending majority in Symbian, could the Nokia/Symbian team be seen as just such a threat? Analyst Ira Brodsky of Datacomm Research thinks so: “Competitors would rather rely on an operating system that comes from an unbiased source,” says Brodsky.

Nokia, the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer, is downplaying Symbian’s current lead, perhaps for fear of a backlash. “We are not celebrating yet, and we don’t want a monopoly,” the Guardian reports a cautious Antii Vasara, Nokia’s VP for technology marketing and sales, saying.

Michael King, senior research analyst with Gartner, believes Nokia is definitely downplaying Symbian’s lead, “because Nokia would like Symbian to appear to be open source, especially for developers, whereas really the majority of Symbian devices are Nokia’s.”

But Dale Vile, analyst with Quocirca, a European research group, believes that no matter how much the industry dislikes Microsoft’s PC monopoly it will lead to traction in the mobile market, too. “IT departments want easy integration with Microsoft Office applications,” says Vile. And Microsoft is the player in the best position to do that.

Still others in the industry want to point to Linux as the slow-but-steady tortoise of the mobile and PC market, with Motorola and NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s leading mobile operator, having invested in developing Linux-based phones. Even China seems to have set Linux as the standard for PCs and mobiles.

King points out that OS may not be the biggest issue within this newly formed market. “Until developers begin developing applications for certain smartphone operating systems, it’s not going to matter what OS you choose.”

But the market is compelled to debate the numbers. In mid-May, the NDP Group, a retail sales tracking firm, declared Palm OS the leader in the U.S. smartphone market, with a 47 percent share.
—Katy Connor
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