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Why you should care about smartphone operating systems

Woman using smartphone

The world’s biggest mobile manufacturer Nokia and the second-biggest software company Microsoft have announced a partnership in an attempt to slow their rapidly declining share of smartphone market. Will it work?

The deal will see Nokia adopt Microsoft’s recently-launched Windows Phone 7 as the primary operating system (OS) on its smartphones.

This is something of a landmark for the Finnish company which, since the 1980s, has refused to use anything other than its own software.

What’s all the fuss about smartphones?

But why should you care? After all, it’s not like there’s a shortage of smartphones on the high street. New devices are announced almost every week. They all look pretty similar and all seem to do the same thing.

Well, I think we should care, because what’s happening in the smartphone market today is about much more than just phones.

In two years’ time most people in the developed world will own a smartphone. Worldwide sales of the devices jumped by 89% between 2009 and 2010, and earlier this week it was announced that smartphone sales outstripped PC sales for the first time. Whether you like it or not, regular phones are on their way out.

We’re buying into an ecosystem

More importantly, when you buy a smartphone you’re not just buying a device to make phone calls. You’re buying a store where you download applications and games and content delivery services where you download books, music and films.

You’re pushed into using your OS vendor’s preferred internet services, like email and search, and soon you’ll be locked into your vendor’s preferred payment systems that may change the way we shop on the high street.

To use the corporate jargon, you’re buying into an ‘ecosystem’.

This is big business indeed, and it’s why we shouldn’t let the same thing happen to smartphones today as what happened to PCs back in the 90s.

World dominance from the 90s to today

We still live with the legacy of Microsoft’s virtual monopoly of the PC OS market. Windows’ dominance gave consumers a raw deal on numerous fronts, and culminated in Microsoft being indicted by the EU for anti-competitive behaviour.

But it’s not Microsoft’s dominance we have to worry about this time. It’s Google’s.

Google’s smartphone strategy against Apple, with its Android OS, is very similar to Microsoft’s strategy with Windows in the 90s. Both Google and Microsoft attacked Apple by allowing third party hardware manufacturers to use their operating systems (Microsoft charged a license fee for Windows, whereas Google goes further and gives Android away for free), undercutting Apple’s premium products.

This strategy worked back then and it seems to be working now. According to one research firm, Android is now the world’s dominant smartphone OS. An astonishing feat for an OS that launched barely two years ago.

Obviously there are differences, but given Google’s already privileged position as the de-facto gatekeeper of the internet, the stakes are even higher.

Nokia and Microsoft’s partnership may end up having little bearing on all this, but it is welcome competition in an industry that’s going to have an increasingly large impact on everything from the way we use the internet, to how we shop.

And that’s exactly why you should care about smartphone operating systems.


In a couple of years we will be able to look back to when Nokia had a good reputation in the mobile phone market.

Here’s a prediction. If the Nokisoft phones capture 10% market share within two years the Nokia brand will disappear from the “smartphones” (by which I apparently meant touchscreens that have a UI that is idiot proof) and be called Microsoft phones (so as not to confuse the average user, see above). The Nokia brand will be relegated to dumb and “feature” phones, which will do everything the smartphones do but using keys and no Windows software (this is roughly the current state of play). RIM will have all of the business the E-Series used to have and Android will have 65% of the market. Apple will have the 15% or so that it has peaked at.

If Nokisoft phones do not capture 10% of the market, Microsoft will bail. Nokia will be stuck in the middle, having been encouraged by MS to not worry about the dumb end (now only Asian vendors) and having only a middle market in feature phones, an unsustainable business.

I don’t blame Elop, he is just doing his (MS) job. I blame the Nokia board who are idiots at best.

Android is not really free. You pay for it indirectly. Why should this be a concern? Android has aided the development of a tiny communications instrument that is packed with electronics that is really amazing. You just don’t see any of the technology beneath the skin.

Android has provided strong competition to the OS side that users directly experience that have helped advance the boundaries of these devices. Without Android and Google, we may be slave to Apple or still using huge basic mobiles with tiny virtually unreadable grey screens.

These tiny devices can now surf the Internet, make voice calls, send texts, provide cheap video calling, tweeting, emailing, appointments, newspapers, TV listings, TV remote control, full SatNav, instant banking, instant betting, live TV, photography, video and supports of hundreds of applets. Most of this from anywhere in the World. Who can guess what the future will bring.

So don’t knock Google for being a big part of this revolution.

“Windows’ dominance gave consumers a raw deal on numerous fronts…”

The truest words I have read on Which? for several years – but still something of an understatement.

I am, however, somewhat less worried about smartphone operating systems. As far as I can tell, Android is succeeding primarily on its own merits, unlike Windows that succeeded because of MS’s anti-competitive behaviour. (Heaven knows how much better PC operating systems would be if MS had been reined in early on!).

Plus, Apple is rumoured to be introducing an iPhone Nano later in the year that will compete better on price.

So, Apple and Android in joint first place with MS trailing a poor third – sounds OK to me.

Thanks a lot for the comments guys.

I too agree that Android is a decent OS, I’m really not knocking it at all – I own a HTC Desire. My point is just that we should welcome competition in this space as a way to keep vendors in check.

But I wouldn’t say Android is succeeding primarily on its own merits. It’s succeeding because it’s given away to manufacturers for free. And this business model can only make sense for a company such as Google, because Google is the only company that has a lucrative monopoly on paid internet search.

It won’t be long now till there are more web searches taking place on smartphones than on PCs. I don’t see any preinstalled ‘Bing’ shortcut appearing on my Android phone – not unless the EU get involved 🙂

Once NFC payments become mainstream it will be interesting to see just how people will react to Google’s business model of collecting personal data to sell on to advertisers. When that’s taking place in the real world, rather than online, perhaps more people will see Google in a less benevolent light.

Good point regarding Apple’s ‘iPhone Nano’, as I said, I don’t think Apple will make the same mistake twice – they learnt a pretty hard lesson first time around.

I think a key factor in the battle is upgradability. New versions of Android are emerging at a rate of knots, and yet users are at the hands of the hardware manufactures as to whether or not they can take advantage of them. Sometime this is legitimate – if the hardware does not support a new feature, but other times it is more cynical, like getting you to upgrade your phone. With new smartphones costing several hundred pounds (ignoring the pricing camouflage that goes with contracts) people are unlikely to put up with this.

The worst offender is HTC and Microsoft. I am the proud owner of the HTC HD2. I chose this because the hardware was great and I knew Windows Mobile 7 was coming. Only to find out that no upgrade will be offered – supposedly because it has too many buttons to comply with Microsoft’s WM7 policy! The irony was that the HTC HD2 was originally designed for WM7 but shipped with WM6.5 when 7 was delayed.

So, I will never touch WM or HTC again, and from the forums I have seen, my experience is fairly typical.

jtwoodfield says:
2 April 2011

You are better off with the HTC HD2 running 6.5 than 7.

I bought a phone running Windows 7 and it is not a patch on 6.5. Quite apart from operating system being designed in a way that makes it very hard to tailor it to needs, the phone will not sync with Outlook running on your own PC. You need to add Outlook connector, move all your data and then sync wth Live. WHich does not include being able to sync your notes. A complete charade as against using Active Sync as one can with earlier versions of Windows phones. Further, for reasons that are impenetrable, W7 phones have no card slot so cannot be expanded.

The irony, having regard to the comments in this thread, is that having sent the W7 phone back I replaced it with a Nokia N8. The phone is brilliant. People who criticise the software are simply not giving it a chance.

The main downside is that Nokia have made the Microsoft/Apple error of abandoning PC Suite in favour of Ovi which is a work in progress without the advanced features of the program it replaces. However, at least Ovi syncs with Outlook. Including Notes. That is more than an Android phone will achieve.

Finally, being an adult I am not that fussed about “Apps” . What I reasonably – and unreasonably such as charts of the whole of the Med+GPS for a few pounds – Nokia seems able to provide.