The Smartphone OS Wars Are Here

Carl Weinschenk

Last week, I blogged about the good times being experienced by Android, the open source operating system from Google and the rest of the Open Handset Alliance. The post referred to a Gartner study that suggests that Android will find a home in 14 percent of smartphones by 2013, from a starting point of a mere 2 percent now.

That post and the Gartner study to which it refers only tells part of the smartphone OS story, however. Today, In-Stat released a survey that offers good news to other smartphone OSes as well. The release says the Palm Web OS is expanding and that the iPhone OS remains strong.

This, the firm says, will lead to the start of what it calls "the smartphone OS war." The press release and report describe the key dynamics, which include the announcement that AT&T is allowing VoIP on iPhones, the likely extension of the exclusive relationship between the companies, the opening of the Palm Web OS to developers and the official release last week of Windows Mobile 6.5.

Windows Mobile 6.5, which garnered mostly negative reviews, is an interesting topic. Whether industry reaction is due to the nature of the OS itself or the disappointment that it is not more ambitious is a matter of debate. In any case, there is general agreement that the OS is a stopgap until the release of Windows Mobile 7.0, which may come next year.

PCWorld makes the case for the relevance of WM 6.5. While spending the first section of his piece acknowledging that the OS isn't an earth-shattering breakthrough, the writer points to incremental advances, such as a better touch display, the available of some functionality even when the screen is locked and the introduction of My Phone backup service and an application store.

The popularity of Android has its own dangers. In a very interesting TechCrunch piece, Michael Arrington suggests that the proliferation of Android-based OSes is leading to fragmentation. Arrington reports that developers tell him that incompatibilities can make it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for one version of an application to run on different versions of Android. Writes Arrington:

More than one developer has told us that this isn't just a matter of debugging their existing application to ensure that it works on the various handsets. They say they're going to have to build and maintain separate code for various Android devices.

The technology folks will deal as best they can with the technical problems. From a higher perspective, the idea is that an operating system-as any business initiative-faces different issues as it evolves and matures. The big question is whether the Android consortium structure is capable of dealing with this potentially thorny problem.

The world of smartphone operating systems is complex and interesting. The demand for these devices has grown even during a down economy, and stands to grow even more intense as the financial outlook improves.

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