MWC 2014: Mobile OS Entering the Stasis Field

I have will be e-mailing out my full note from Mobile World Congress over the weekend, below is one piece from that longer note. I will post the rest of the content over the weekend.

Mobile OS – In the Stasis Field

Most people in the industry implicitly assume that there are only two operating systems (OS) in mobile – iOS and Android. There has been a lot of hope that alternatives could emerge. This has looked unlikely for a while, and nothing at the show made me think any differently.

In my preview post I walked through the various alternatives. In particular, I mentioned that this would be a telling year for Tizen, measureable by the amount of space it received in the Samsung booth. Samsung has emerged as the champion of this Linux implementation. And there were precisely zero Tizen phones on display in the Samsung booth. The OS did have a separate booth back in Hall 8. Reaching out to developers in Hall 8 is a good idea, but having a better hardware ecosystem is more important.

Tizen Phone at MWC 2014
 Tizen Phone
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tizen Principles MWC 2014
 Tizen principles at MWC 2014 * Openness and Flexibility* Develop Once, Deploy Anywhere

* Driver of Customer Choice                         & Innovation

The same holds true for Jolla’s Sailfish OS. Sailfish had a nice demo phone, but their strategy shows the problem facing the industry today. The big highlight of their demo was the fact that users can run Android apps on Jolla phones. Essentially conceding defeat in finding their own developer base. The best they could offer was the fact that their implementation of the Alien Dalvik virtual machine (VM) created very little performance penalty when executing Android apps in Sailfish. The helpful Jolla evangelist pointed out that since Android is so fragmented, running Android apps on a Jolla phone often meant better performance than on a native Android devices.  These are not selling points. Nor is the much-highlighted fact that their phones “obviously come with a command line”. My checks indicate that Jolla is searching for a business model. Having sold “tens of thousands of devices” has proved a hard slog, but selling only an operating system is going to prove even more challenging.

Jolla’s Sailfish OS – MWC 2014
 Jolla MWC 2014

I also spent some time in the Canonical booth watching demos of  their Ubuntu Phone OS. As I mentioned in the previous post, Canonical has admitted they will not ship a phone until 2015 at the earliest. I suspect they realized this too late to cancel their booth. It also did not help their prospects that everyone in their booth repeatedly described their UI model as being “just like on our desktop”. The number of people at MWC familiar with the Ubuntu desktop UI is about equal to the number of people working in the Ubuntu booth. As I mentioned, I like the Ubuntu OS, it offers something unique (just like their desktop), but see little hope here.

Probably the biggest attention at the show was on the Firefox booth. For some reason, their booth was always very crowded. (This could have something to do with the free, strong coffee). Their big news for the show was the launch of a $25 smartphone. Slated for release in the middle of the year. Several OS people asked me if it was really possible to build a phone this cheap. The answer is yes, it is possible, but watch the details. This $25 phone is EDGE- only (i.e. 2G). The phone will be built on Spreadtrum’s EDGE platform, so I think it should perform pretty well, even at that low price point. But this is a phone targeting not the next billion, but the billion after that. People who are today buying $15 feature phones will soon be able to buy $25 smartphones.  That is assuming Firefox can get its kernel small enough. That being said, Firefox is progressing steadily. My checks indicate that carrier adoption has been slow, but with new phones coming up the interest level is picking up.

There is still hope for Firefox. Targeting very low price points may give them an advantage. At the very least, it could potentially allow them to build up some volume. Done right, they could get to a few hundred million users in a few years. Even if these are the world’s poorest users, that would still be a significant user base. Enough critical mass to attract developers.  But the clock is ticking. My guess is that these devices do not really get into volume production until late this year. Then more carriers have to get lined up, more OEMs and more retail distribution. Factor in the usual production delays, and Firefox does not really start building users until 2016. By that point, Android devices may start reaching those price points. Also, if small manufacturers start to see real demand for EDGE only smartphones, they can build those just as easily with Android. So I am not ruling Firefox out, nor am I counting on their success.

Noticeable by their absence this year were Microsoft and Blackberry. Microsoft only had a meeting room at the back of the show, and Blackberry’s meeting rooms were at a well-hidden hotel across the street from the Fira. There are a number of well-known examples of MWC attendees removing themselves from the fray, notably Nokia who tried the ‘across the street’ meeting room several years ago. None of those examples achieved the desired effect.

Nokia X Android UI

Nokia X Software specs – note the software version

 Nokia X UI MWC 2014  Nokia X Specs MWC 2014
It is hard to see in this photo on the right, but this is marked as Software Version 0.1408.4. If this were stock Android it would be 4.x. This appears to be a pre-release version of a Nokia custom fork of Android.

And while we are on the subject of Nokia, the big news from them this show was the launch of their X Phone running Android.  Like Amazon and many others, Nokia re-skinned Android. The UI looks like Windows Phone, Bing is default search, Here is default maps. I posted about the wisdom of this strategy a few weeks back. At the time, I saw the logic. Seeing it implemented left me with many questions. First, this confirms what I have long held, that Windows Phone kernel is too big to work on low-cost phones, and likely always will be. Second, I have to wonder about the politics behind seeing this launched inside Nokia on the cusp of being acquired by Microsoft. I also noticed that Nokia is back to having three operating systems – Android in the X phone, Windows for Lumia and the repurposed Series 60 for their Asha line. Maintaining multiple operating systems is incredibly expensive, a factor which brought down many other OEMs over the years.

Lastly, there is Windows Phone. I did not spend much time on this at MWC. Microsoft did not have a booth, and other than Nokia, few of the OEMs dedicated much space to these devices. The big news was the Microsoft lined up almost a dozen new hardware partners. This is big news. First it is a healthy number in absolute terms. More importantly, they were able to sign all these new entrants despite the pending acquisition of Nokia. I have to explore this a bit more, but it is a healthy dynamic. If Microsoft can continue the momentum and continue to keep the peace between Nokia and its other hardware partners,  then there is hope for them slowly carving out a sustainable foothold in the industry.

Aside from Windows, however, the rest of the industry seems to be solidifying down to three OS –Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and the sea of re-skinned Android replicants that continue to arrive.

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