The Greek Gods of mobile operating systems (Apple iOS, Google Android, Blackberry, and Microsoft Windows) may be surprised to find life stirring in the 2013 Underworld with the release of Firefox, Ubuntu, and Tizen. No, the new OS’s will not come close to scaling the immense 90% market share upon which Mount Olympus was built, but they will do what the underworld does best, stir up a healthy dose of chaos. How, you ask? To get to that, lets analyze the contenders: ancient Greece style.
Zeus: Google Android
We all know Android is the unequivocal Zeus of the group, with a whopping 75% (IDC) of market share. What most of us are not aware of, however, is that Android has also been attracting an absurdly disproportionate number malware infections (McAffee). Ironically, the source of Android’s power (an open source platform) is also its Achilles heel.
An open source platform allows companies and individual programmers alike free reign to tweak and modify Android’s OS code, making Android a gold mine for developers (app writers). These developers have proved to be a driving force for Android’s success. However, an open source platform also creates fragmentation and, more importantly, invites malware. By fragmentation, we are talking thousands of variations of the same code, variations which may, willingly or obliviously, tamper with security-related features of the OS. All of these variations make it impossible for important OS updates (including security updates) to reach all Android users within a reasonable period of time.
Poseidon: Apple iOS
Just as Poseidon’s power is exclusive to water, the iOS works almost exclusively with only the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch (disappointingly, your iPhone is still obnoxiously hydrophobic). This is extremely limited compared to the hundreds of phones and devices one can choose from carrying the Android and Windows platforms. In any case, being Zeus’ brother, the Apple iOS is still second in command at approximately 14.9% of market share.
By keeping an airtight grip on its code, in contrast to Android’s open source, Apple has managed to eliminate the threat of malware (so far). Such a successful grip, however, cannot come without serious drawbacks in flexibility. Developers are greatly handicapped compared to Android and users can only download apps from the tightly controlled App Store. Despite these restrictions, Apple keeps, and will continue to keep, a strong following of consumers who are willing to trade control for security and simplicity.
Hercules: Microsoft Windows
The big-lettered, bright-tiled Windows phone first showed its beautiful (inter)face in 2010 (three years after iOS and two years after Android). Admittedly, Windows is obviously more demigod than god with a puny 2%* market share, however, like Hercules, it would be wrong to underestimate the strength of an underdog with a powerful (230 billion dollar) Daddy.
Microsoft has poured money into the Windows Phone, and especially since the release of Windows Phone 8, the world is taking notice. Windows Phone 8 is attractive to developers because its framework is close enough to Windows 8 (the laptop and tablet version) to make apps that work across both platforms. Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO) noted at CES that Windows Phone sold five times as many devices this Christmas than the same period last year. As long as Windows 8 can keep up the clearly attractive interface and fix the annoying WinRT vs .NET developer issue, Microsoft could pose a significant threat to both Olympus and the Underworld alike.
Sisyphus: RIM (BB10)
Sisyphus, once the cunning King of Corinth, was doomed to an eternity of pushing a massive boulder uphill only to watch it roll right back down just before reaching the summit. Such is the plight of Research in Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM), the BlackBerry OS developer. For years RIM and BlackBerry have been desperately trying to push their market share (aka massive boulder) back up the hill, only to watch it fall, once again.
With the release of BlackBerry 10 at the end of this month, it seems RIM is bracing itself for one final epic push. This time, however, they may have enlisted some crucial help from an unlikely source: app developers. Many developers abandoned the BlackBerry platform in the past with complaints of a seriously lacking toolkit. According to a Baird Equity Research Study in July 2012 RIM saw 30% declines in developer membership for two consecutive quarters. The IDC/ Appcelerator’s Mobile Developer Report for the same year saw a similar trend where developer interest in the BlackBerry platform declined from 20.7% (Q4) to 15.5% (Q1).
It seems RIM may have finally taken notice of the interesting correlation between developer interest and mobile OS market share with the recent release of Gold (Dec 2012). The Gold version of the developer toolkit for BlackBerry 10 has been carefully designed to cater to a wide spectrum of coders:
The toolkit will allow native C/C++ and Qt developers to build new apps with the BlackBerry Cascades SDK....Meanwhile, HTML5 developers can use BlackBerry WebWorks to create web applications that deliver native-esque performance. Many of these tools are also available for anyone building apps through Adobe Air, or looking to port an app across from the Android platform (TNW).
Two weekends ago, RIM held two ‘Portathons’ where they collected 15,000 BB10 app submissions in 37.5 hrs. Most of these, however, were not original and only ported versions of previously developed applications. Although 15,000 is not insignificant, it is nowhere near the 800,000 app bags of iOS and Android. That being said RIM is going to need plenty of help if it wants to get anywhere near the summit of its past self, and that massive boulder of market share still has an awful long way to go-- even with a full fledged developer force behind it.
Symbian (who currently holds under 2.3% of market share) has been left out of the Greek OS War for obvious reasons. Those of you who recognize the name should find this acceptable (excepting of course, those who happen to have a strong fetish toward vicious malware).
Firefox, Ubuntu, and Tizen
Finally, we arrive at the underworld <insert evil laugh here>. These OS’s, set to release late this year, may seem like mere fringe players at first glance. However, when put together, they secretly harness the underground power of Hades and the Underworld. Their power lies in that they all contain one very powerful characteristic, all three are radically open source- even more so than Android. Such an open source is bound to create both a vast and very attractive Elysian Field (infinite possibilities for developers to alter code) and an equally great Tartarus (infinite possibilities for malicious malware).
Ok, but this still doesn't explain how three tiny little players will manage to ‘stir a healthy dose of chaos’ on mighty Olympus? Surely, Zeus could never find competition in such beta creatures. This is true, it will take years for these new OS’s to build up the interfaces, app bags, and hardware to keep up with a giant like Android who has had a significant head start. However, just as the princess lost sleep over the placement of a seemingly insignificant pea, size is not always indicative of impact.
Consider the proximity in market share of the greatest gods of the OS war: Android (75%) and Apple’s (14.9%). With a steady increase in market share that has been largely projected to continue, Android is well on its way to becoming the next Microsoft of the 90’s. The good news is, the introduction of open source Firefox, Ubuntu, and Tizen OS’s will likely exclusively target Android market share (assuming consumers who value Apple’s closed-source security will continue to stay with the brand). In other words, say the three new OS’s make modest gains in market share, approximately 8% each over the course of the next five years. That spells out to a significantly altered 51% Android share (75-8-8-8=51). Yes, this is simplified for the sake of argument, but you get the idea (for you math guru’s out there, consider the math behind the Banzhaf power index for a more specific explanation).
Will the lords of the Underworld ever find a path to Olympus? Will Hercules ever find a seat among the Gods? Will Poseidon manage to dethrone his brother Zeus? Will Sisyphus EVER get that damn boulder to the summit? From Mount Olympus to the depths of the Underworld, 2013 is shaping up to be an epic tale of mobile OS, the ending of which, will ultimately be written by each and every one of us.
*Note: Market shares are IDC values based on the third quarter of 2012, before the release of Windows 8. Microsoft Windows mobile OS 2% market share, therefore, is potentially underestimated.