HTC is reportedly working on a new operating system (OS), one that is specifically tailored to a Chinese audience. This is a smart strategic move for them, software is they key value component of smartphones now. Beyond that I will not comment on their prospects. All I know is what has appeared in the blogs, and I do not want to delve into a specific OEM’s plans.
That being said, there is already a large number of similar efforts underway in China. Many companies are trying to build their own OS. For their part Apple has already integrated their iOS with many of the leading Chinese web properties, for example one-touch posts to Weibo instead of Twitter and the ability to set Baidu as default search rather than Google.
Most of the Chinese language OS to date have in reality just been re-skinned versions of Android. OEMs and their software partners have taken the completely free version of the Android kernel, which is available for download by all, and inserted their own user interface layer. Underneath the hood, they insert links to their own services or those of partners.
There are a few difficulties with this strategy:
- Building an operating system from scratch is very expensive. Re-skinning Android is less so. But even more expensive than building the OS is maintaining it. Operating systems need to be updated and advanced. This work is not well rewarded, it is essentially just table stakes for being in the business.
- An OS is a ‘platform’, meaning that other things are built on top of it. Mostly, that means apps, and for apps to be interesting they need to come from lots of developers. There are no clear rules here, but generally speaking 10,000 apps on an OS is a good place to start, but critical mass is probably closer to 100,000. No single OS vendor can build that many apps on their own. So the platform has to appeal to a lot of developers. Attracting those developers is a big complex process, about which we have written many times before. For the purpose of this post, suffice it to say this is not easy.
- An OS needs hardware partners. Microsoft had dozens of hardware partners, and the cost of building the OS could be amortized across all of them. Building on OS for a single hardware line is exceedingly rare. Apple being the exception that proves the rule. Google can do this because they have another, large revenue base to tap into that in turn feds of the OS. And they are also the exception, even Facebook with its billion users has not been able to launch their own OS, and probably will never try.
So far, all of the China-based attempts to build an OS have stumbled on one or more of these. Even China Mobile, which has more subscribers than the US has citizens could not generate critical mass for its Android variant.
For their part, Google does not see worried by these clones. They know that they can keep updating Android. The clones then have to build their own updates. This process ensures the clones will always be a step behind.
That all being said, I still think there is room for more operating systems in the world. The odds do not favor any of the contenders, but the smartphone market is large and there are still some huge markets with almost no smartphones. So maybe, just maybe there is room for another OS, or two.