Questions from Mobile World Congress 2013

Author: Mike Anderson, Jim Lundy
Date: March 15, 2013
Topic: Mobile
Research Note Number: 2013-09


Issues: What are the trends impacting mobile computing?

Summary: Open-source mobile operating systems were all the rage at the 2013 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. While many carriers and handset manufacturers have high hopes, the reality is that a mature mobile OS takes years to develop.


At MWC 2013, pronouncements were everywhere about mobile operating systems. Mozilla was not the only one gaining traction, with Ubuntu, Tizen and Jolla’s Sailfish each taking the stage (see Note 1). Those that want to go it alone, such as Samsung and Mozilla, face very high risks in trying to match what Apple and Google have done. In fact, for many hardware vendors, the lure of owning and controlling an operating system is appealing. Managing an OS is only part of the issue, however: innovating with it is an even bigger challenge.

Mobile OS Challenges

1. What key challenges are technology providers facing?

The challenges that technology providers face when developing mobile operating systems are cultural as well as technical. Many hardware makers underestimate the sheer effort required to develop and maintain software. They also sometimes see development projects as sprints, rather than taking a long-term approach to creating software.

Gaining traction in a mobile market so dominated by iOS and Android will take persistence and innovation. Attracting users to a new platform takes more than providing capabilities and experiences that are similar to the current leaders. New entrants will have to create an environment that can actually deliver on the promise of more apps, and inspire developers to create them. Attractors include innovation, flexibility, broad platform support, an open environment and the opportunity for economic participation.

2. How important is culture?

Culture is not trivial, particularly with regard to innovation. Innovating in software, particularly operating systems, is like conducting an orchestra: there are many moving parts, and it takes years to unify the sound after the team is put together. Very few enterprises have been able to build great software repeatedly on a regular basis, with quality and innovation built in.

Speed is key. There are still cultural obstacles to innovation in many places, which accounts for the limited number of OS success stories. However, there is a growing demand for new approaches to stimulate growth in emerging economies. This will provide opportunities for new mobile OS providers, but they must be prepared to stay ahead of the rapid IT proliferation that mobility is driving.

3. How high are the technology obstacles?

There are many factors involved with regard to development of the operating system. Other factors include integration of drivers and other media handling services as well as providing the necessary graphics processing and audio/video processing that are required in the modern mobile OS.

A major challenge facing open-source developers who want to create a new OS is that many of the large technology providers own rights to the underlying intellectual property, and may restrict access to some of the key IP.

The good news is that if providers use the right chipsets in their devices, they may hold a “get out of jail free” card. Many of the semiconductor companies have interest in companies that own the intellectual property, so selecting the processor is strategic. This is particularly true when it comes to video. MPEG-LA is a consortium and many manufacturers are already members of certain groups. For example, Samsung is a member of the AVC/H.264 group, so they would be able to use H.264 to encode and decode HD video. Other vendors who are not members of the consortium would have to pay royalties after signing a license agreement.

In the short term, stretching technical boundaries is a relatively low priority for most mobile OS upstarts. Initial forays are aimed at low-end phones, mainly in emerging markets. Offering a competitive smartphone experience at feature-phone prices with the potential of an open app ecosystem will be the promise.

Those with broader aspirations, such as Jolla, the creator of Sailfish, will need to be more complete and more competitive with the existing leaders. With a strong focus on Asia, particularly China, they have the potential to open segments where an alternative to iOS or Android may be more attractive to users, carriers and developers.

4. What are the issues around timing? How long did it take Apple and Google to get into the mobile OS market?

Aragon estimates that it takes 2 – 3 years to create a reasonably mature mobile operating system. It certainly took Apple that long and Google took nearly as long as well. It’s important to realize that both Apple and Google had built teams with incredible software expertise for years before they tackled mobile OS development. Apple in particular has leveraged its core OS X operating system to gain a cross-platform advantage in mobile.


Note: This is part of Aragon’s archived research.
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