Multi-brand OS/platforms vs. closed platforms

Currently in the mobile phone market, a manufacturer can choose to use an off the shelf operating system or “make” their own. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and in this article I’d like to explore that in slightly more detail.

Closed platform
Off the shelf platforms
Examples Apple with OSX Mobile, Palm with WebOS, Nokia with Maemo, RIM with Blackberry OS. Windows Mobile on HTC, Samsung and Motorola; Symbian on Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson; Android on HTC, Motorola and Samsung.
Initial monetary investment All development costs are borne by the manufacturer. This can be slightly mitigated by using an open source kernel and other open source contributions, like Nokia does with Maemo. Unless one wants to customise the UX, the actual OS does not require substantial investments. The only cost involved with using an OS are possible license fees, as is the case with Windows Mobile.
Customisation The level of customisation is at a maximum and only limited by the amount of resources available. You can tweak the OS from the ground up to fit your vision. Moreover, the fit between hardware and software can also be perfect, as both are under the manufacturer’s control. Though the user interface is normally quite customisable – look at HTC’s Sense UI for an example – lower level aspects of the OS normally aren’t (altough HTC has managed to get capacitive touch screen support on Windows Mobile!).
Flexibility The investment in a “proprietary” platform is long-term. Once you get started, you have a lot invested in it, and it is not trivial to change course. A manufacturer can switch platform with relative ease when it sees something new and more attractive coming by. Only in the case of investing heavily in the UX, as HTC has done with Android, the investment is pretty substantial, but even then it is not comparable to the situation a proprietary platform creates.
Application store The manufacturer can control the application store experience more easily. As the operating system can run on handsets from different manufacturers, it is possible to reach critical mass more easily. If more and more devices run an OS, it also becomes more interesting for developers to invest in that platform.

As you can see, not one of the two models is inherently better than the other. It all comes down to execution. Given that that is the case, what else can we see in the market in terms of where things are going with regards to software?

1.    Differentiation from your competitors is very important in this very competitive smartphone market. Having your own proprietary operating system/ platform, allows you to create a product that is markedly different from the competition. With off-the-shelf operating systems, it is more difficult to really create something unique.

– As an illustration of this point, Motorola Blur and HTC Sense UI do not offer the exact same user experience, thanks to UI customisation by the manufacturer. However, it is certainly more similar than, say, WebOS and OSX Mobile.

2.    Services and applications are becoming more important everyday. The operating system layer of your platform is becoming less and less important to the end-user. Eventually, he/she looks for features and benefits delivered through applications and services. As a general rule, it is easier for a rich ecosystem of apps and services to flourish when many handsets support them.

– Android and WebOS launched at a relatively similar point in time, but due to the faster spread of Android (due to its off-the-shelf nature), the amount of applications offered for that platform now far exceeds the apps for WebOS.

– As an exception to the rule, we can look at OSX Mobile and Symbian. Symbian, with an incredibly large installed user base, does not have the richness and variety of applications that Apple managed to offer. In part, I believe, this is due to Apple’s first mover advantage when launching the app store.

Lastly, I would like to note that there are manufacturers that work with multiple platforms. The most obvious example is Samsung. They offer phones with Windows Mobile, Android, Symbian and their own proprietary “dumb-phone” OS. In order to create a certain cohesiveness and Samsung-feel to the different phones, they created a user interface called touch wiz. In order to advance in this direction, and confirming the two points mentioned above, yesterday it announced Bada. Bada is not really an OS, though, but rather a platform for application and services development for Samsung phones.

The smartphone market has many different models, and it is not clear who will be the tomorrow’s winners, but at the least they sure need to make sure they offer an attractive and differentiated user experience that enables the user to make use of different services in an easy way.

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