Smartphone and tablet OS dominate Mobile World Congress

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This week I had the pleasure of joining 60,000 members of the global mobile ecosystem descending on Barcelona for Mobile World Congress.

Anyone reading news or commentary on the event would be forgiven for thinking it was a CES for mobile phones. MWC was dominated by the latest gadgets from HTC, Hauwei, LG, Samsung, Motorola and Nokia. And of course Apple cast a long shadow by its continued absence.

Why consumer devices matter

All IT managers will have felt the effects of consumerization. Virtually no company will not have been touched by the use of employees' own devices and applications in their day-to-day work. So what happens in the handset wars is important, particularly as smartphones now outnumber PCs , and a good many of them are owned by people who work. It would be foolish to assume they are not being used at work.

So the first big news is Microsoft and Nokia. The world's largest mobile phone manufacturer announced that it was ditching its smart phone operating system Symbian in favor of Windows Phone  As discussed by The Guardian's Charles Arthur, the Nokia Windows handsets are unlikely to be ready until at least October  and so will probably ship with the next version of Windows Phone. The Windows Phone operating system has had some great reviews since its launch, however it did not feature on many of the handsets on show at MWC, even among its partners.

What dominated was Android, Google's operating system for mobile devices. The next iterations - Gingerbread for handsets and Honeycomb for tablets - were displayed on the stands of Chinese vendors ZTE and Huawei, Taiwan's HTC, South Korea's Samsung and LG, plus Sony Ericsson and Motorola. Android was in seemingly every device. From LG, for instance, there was the impressive Optimus 3D smartphone to the company's dual-core powered tablet, G Slate

And in case any forgot about plucky Blackberry, RIM was keen to point out it was still the business users' favorite smartphone, has a rapidly growing application store, is introducing a tablet, application gifting and is the most environmentally friendly device.

So for buyers it’s getting very confusing. Market leader Nokia and number 3, RIM, are fending off the iPhone (best mobile device of the year award at MWC ) and Android, which is now the number 2 smartphone OS. Throw Microsoft Phone into the mix, as well as the dying embers of Nokia' Symbian, its MeeGo OS, Samsung's Bada and HP's WebOS (derived from Palm), it is quite apparent there are too many mobile device operating systems.

App developers have to make a choice between which environments they can write for because only the largest can develop apps for all environments and maintain them. So for enterprises, a consolidation down to three or four environments is good thing: not just because it limits the number of device platforms that they need to support (both on company owned devices and employee owned) it also reduces security risks. More platforms means more holes.

Operators fight back

A curve ball pitched in the device OS park was the rather
muted announcement by the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) of a new set of specifications as well as news that both Ericsson and Telefonica are setting up application stores that are WAC compliant.

WAC launched last year as the mobile operators' riposte to the growing influence of Silicon Valley (i.e. Apple, Google and Microsoft) in the mobile phone business. WAC will be a white-labeled application store than any operator can use and can run on devices using different OS. If all operators and handset vendors sign up to WAC, consumers will be able to move their applications between devices (handsets, tablets, set-top boxes) and between service providers. This means no lock-in, and more of the application revenues go into the operators' pocket. In theory Apple, Google and Microsoft could sign up to it, but this is highly unlikely.

So while there are serious merits to the idea of WAC, so far there are no WAC handsets available, and more and more people are upgrading their feature phones to smartphones running iOS, Android, Windows etc. WAC will need to mature quickly if it is to survive a market already ripe for consolidation.

In my next blog post, I'll look at some of the other interesting themes of MWC including near-field communications (NFC), small cells, mobile clouds and energy efficiency.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.