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The Mobile Phone Operating System Wars


It wasn’t so long ago that all you expected from your mobile phone was for it to let you talk to other people. Not any more! It’s not your dad’s cellular phone anymore; actually, it’s not even your old digital phone. Today, both mobile phone vendors like Ericsson and Nokia and network operators like Sprint and T-Mobile are eagerly pushing you to buy phones that double as personal digital assistants (PDA)s, digital cameras and mini-Internet consoles.

What’s driving this is a combination of ever-shrinking hardware components, which enable mobile phone OEMs to pack ever more processing power and RAM into a hand held device; the slow but steady growth of high speed wireless connections (2.5 and 3G); and network operators seeking new ways—such as simple messaging service (SMS), multimedia messaging service (MMS) and Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) for mobile Web viewing—to make income from their users.

As wireless devices and networks’ functionality and performance of have improved, their operating systems have also had to improve. According to David Wood, Symbian’s Executive Vice President for Technical Consulting, “the relentless increase in user requirements for mobile phones means that proprietary operating systems adopted by mobile phone manufacturers ten years ago are now at their limits.”

Those limits are being broken. Bad economy and all, smartphones are a growth market. According to IDC’s Ross Sealfon, research analyst for Smart Handheld Devices program, smartphones are taking off, with worldwide first quarter 2003 shipments growing by more than 400% to 1.71 million units. Specifically, IDC’s ranks Nokia (Symbian OS) as Q1 2003 market leader, based on units shipped, with 57.3% of the market, followed by Sony Ericsson (Symbian OS) with 11.1%, then Motorola, 7.4% (Symbian OS); Samsung 5.1% (Palm OS & Symbian OS); and Handspring 4.1% (Palm OS).

Carl Zetie, analyst with Forrester Research, believes, “that the rise of middleware for mobile devices, starting with mobile databases” which “suddenly it was much easier and cheaper to integrate a mobile app into the enterprise Infrastructure” is part of what’s drives the smartphone market.

Zetie also thinks that while, 2.5G, with its theoretical 115Kbps and practical 40 to 60Kbps throughput, “is certainly another important driver of adoption for PDAs as it provides dramatically better connectivity than its predecessor, I don’t think you can attribute the growth of mobile OSs to 2.5G for two reasons. First, the biggest beneficiary of 2.5G is the low end data-enabled smartphone such as J2ME or BREW-enabled phones. These devices have the least powerful OSs of all handheld devices, and in many cases no ‘real’ OS at all. Second, its important to remember that the majority of PDAs (ignoring the smartphone for a moment) in both the consumer and enterprise domains are mobile but not wireless—that is, they don’t make use of a wireless connection, 2.5G or otherwise.”

Instead, what’s really driving the market, he thinks, is the “constantly inflating enterprise demands for applications that are more and more comparable to what a laptop is capable of with consumer demand for rich media and games.”

Today, the most important mobile operating systems are Microsoft’s Smartphone 2002, Palm OS 5.x, and Symbian OS 7. Each has taken a different path to arrive at this point and each delivers services to their devices in uniquely different ways.

Still, each faces common problems. Each must work with small, mobile devices with limited screen space, memory and input options that usually used in short, frequent bursts of activity. In addition, they must support telephony communications standards and other networking services ranging from IrDA, Bluetooth, and TCP/IP over 2.5/3G and Wi-Fi all while restricting power consumption to the lowest possible level.

Besides doubling as a PDA, today’s smartphones operating systems are also asked to handle audio and video playback over MMS; take, save and send low-resolution digital photographs, and serve as an e-mail and instant messaging client. It’s not easy.

PalmOS: The PDA OS

The oldest of the trio, Palm OS started life in 1998 as an operating system for the first hugely successful PDA, the Palm Pilot. The 16-bit early versions of PalmOS supported the embedded Motorola 68000 chip series known as DragonBall. What set Palm OS apart from its competitors, says Carl Zetie, was that “unlike prior ‘organizers’ Palms could readily be programmed to add relevant enterprise or consumer applications.”

To handle today’s more demanding PDA and phone combinations; the recently released 32-bit PalmOS 5 supports ARM-based processors. With this combination, according to Albert Chu, Palmsource’s VP of Business Development, “the Palm OS has the horsepower to do sophisticated multimedia and security applications.” by supporting 128-bit Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and wireless connectivity options such as 801.11b Wi-Fi.

While Chu claims that Palm OS is the smartphone market leader, others disagree. Chris Preimesberger, wireless development analyst for Evans Data, says, “Palm OS has lost momentum in sales over the last couple of years; even though it has a steady market following. It needs to reestablish itself to developers, and potential new customers, somehow. Palm OS needs a new killer reasons for purchase.”

Isaac Ro, Senior Analyst for the Aberdeen Group, though, thinks that Palm OS’ problem is its hardware developers tend to devise their own ways to fit Palm OS to their phones. “This can lead to fragmentation of the operating system and leads to programmers constantly reinventing the wheel.”

Palm OS 6, according to Chu, which comes out at year’s end, seeks to bring Palm OS developers together and present everyone a killer reason to keep using Palm OS by making the OS support multitasking applications and adding still more telephony and wireless functionality.

Microsoft’s Challenge: Smartphone 2002

Smartphone 2002, codenamed Stinger, has had a rocky start. Based on Windows CE 3.0, like Pocket PC, it is, a Microsoft representative explains, “the subset of the Windows CE that is appropriate for a mobile phone.” At the same time though, “Smartphone software is designed for those whose primary communication is done with voice, with an occasional need to access data information.” Users who want PDA functionality in their phones are directed to Pocket PC powered PDAs.

Thus, only one vendor, Orange, compared to dozens for both Palm OS and Symbian OS, is currently shipping a Smartphone-powered phone. Indeed, Microsoft’s Smartphone OEM partnering has gotten off to a very rocky start with a law suit from Sendo, the UK handset maker, over Microsoft’s business dealings with them.

Zetie observes though that “Microsoft quickly discovered that the brand-name handset makers were uninterested in or even hostile to its plans, so it has done an ‘end run’ around them. By facilitating contracts directly with carriers”—such as AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, and Telefonica—“it has created a completely different value chain that cuts out the traditional tier one handset makers, for one that the carriers like because it puts their brand, along with Microsoft’s, front and center.”

Still one problem for Smartphone developers and users is, unlike the other two, even though Smartphone has a Windows-like interface, the display has no pointer interface meaning users must use the keypad to enter commands. As Preimesberger comments, the most popular Microsoft mobile OS is Pocket PC, which does support a touch screen. Microsoft’s explanation for Smartphone’s lack of a pointer to the desire to make devices that can be operated with one hand.

Isaac Ro, Senior Analyst Aberdeen Group, frankly thinks, “Smartphone is pretty poor” because of multiple technical and implementation problems. But, he’s not betting against Microsoft being a player. “Historically, Microsoft’s first products are always very rough, but their next version is much better” and their “developer tools are unparalleled.”

Symbian OS—the mobile phone OEMs OS of choice.

Symbian OS is beloved by mobile phone OEMs. And why shouldn’t it be? Symbian the company is wholly owned by some of the biggest names in its field: Ericsson, Nokia, Panasonic, Motorola, Psion, Samsung Electronics, Siemens and Sony. It also has the support of major programming tool vendors like Metrowerks.

Unlike the others, Symbian OS, since its rebirth from Psion’s EPOC operating system in 1998 has always been dedicated to be an operating system for mobile phones. Despite that though, and its very high market numbers, Preimesberger says, “I don’t see Symbian making as much progress in the development community as I had expected during the last year.”

Zetie explains, Symbian “likes to boast that its members account for “80% of all handset sales” – meaning that the member manufacturers sell 80% of the phones in the world, not that 80% of the phones sold have Symbian! Only a trickle of Symbian-powered phones have appeared and until Nokia’s Series 60 platform was launched they had very little impact in the market.”

Technically speaking, however, Ro is certain that “Symbian OS is the best” Why? “Because, it’s phone implementations are successful.” Mobile phones aren’t “PDAs and the like, for a voice-dedicated smartphone Symbian offers the best performance, while allowing developers and OEMs to differentiate their programs.”

With broad industry support, open standards, and the breakthrough of the first popular Symbian OS product line, with more to follow from Nokia and Ericsson, IDC predicts that by 2006, Symbian OS will own 53 % of the market with Microsoft’s operating systems placing second with 27 % and Palm lagging behind with 10%


While open standards may drive Symbian forward, open source, in the form of Linux, has been a mobile phone non-starter.

Part of the reason is technical. Rick Lehrbaum,’s founder and editor-in-chief, believes that while a non-toy Linux can be squeezed into as little as 4MBs, “Linux probably requires double the RAM and flash memory of other embedded OSs,” for full mobile phone functionality.

Still, a few small Korean companies, like PalmPalm and Mizi, have developed Linux powered phones. “But,” Lehrbaum explains, “the real problem is that none of the embedded Linux vendors has the resources to attack that market, so it depends on the device and chip vendors to make the investment and partner with Linux OS and other technology players (e.g. Trolltech for Qtopia, Opera for browser.). In contrast, Microsoft has the muscle to make an entire stack come together. A company like MontaVista requires companies like Motorola, TI, Ericsson, and Nokia partnership to put the solution together without it, they’re just too small.”


In the long run, most analysts think Symbian OS will win out. But, what does that really mean?

Zetie says that, “I would add a major caveat to anybody trying to read meaning into market numbers. First, the various reports often define their categories differently, and with so many different variations of voice and data devices, there is often little agreement. For example, is Handspring an unsuccessful PDA vendor or a successful “communicator” vendor? Given that low-end smartphone handsets sell tens of millions of units, PDAs sell millions, and communicators sell tens to hundreds of thousands, comparisons across categories are particularly misleading. Is a Motorola V60i J2ME handset really competing for the same buyer as a Handspring Treo? Probably not. In my view, the market is far too complex to be reduced to overall market shares and gains and losses.”

Ro sees the number of OEMs declining sharply. “It doesn’t make sense to have thirty phone vendors.” At the same time, though, the phones will become have more features. Even baseline machines will have high quality cameras and full PDA functionality. Simultaneously, “the business model in which mobile carriers buys phones from OEM vendors and then gives them away or sales them cheaply in order to gain subscribers will decline but not disappear. This will pressure phone vendors to build more cost effective and complex phones making even more demands of the mobile OSs.

In short, while it’s hard to see what mobile OS will become the most popular as the definition between phone, PDA, and laptop blur, what is clear is that mobile OSs will become increasingly more important to developers, and although they may no longer see the underlying structure as an operating system, end-users as well. The day of the mobile phone as computer is coming fast.

A version of this story was published in IEEE Computer.

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