Phone makers roll their own operating systems as Google and Microsoft close ranks

Sometimes, you can’t help but pay attention to what the man behind the curtain is doing. Earlier this week, Microsoft announced plans to acquire Nokia’s device and services business for more than $7 billion, effectively seizing control of the entire Windows Phone experience, from software to hardware to services.

Just like that, the companies behind every major smartphone operating system now compete directly with their manufacturing partners. And while Google erected a "firewall" between Android and Motorola when it bought the handset maker in 2012, Microsoft has no plans to separate Nokia from the core Windows Phone business. It’s full steam ahead for Microsoft-made smartphones as Redmond tries to single-handedly turn Windows Phone from an also-ran into a contender.

The sudden circling of the in-house wagons has to have third-party handset makers like Samsung, HTC, and LG sweating.

“Vendors who are not tightly aligned with an operating system company…[have]…got to be looking at this and saying ‘Maybe I should be looking a little more closely at how to chart my future by partnering or owning my own operating system stack,’” says Ramon Llamas, a research manager with IDC’s mobile phone team.

Indeed, with their OS options looking increasing cloudy (if not downright perilous), hardware ronins like HTC are starting to fight fire with fire by creating alternative smartphone OSs.

Striking out on their own

Tizen
The Tizen logo

“Vertical integration was hard to ignore with Apple, then Google,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. “But now it’s impossible with Microsoft going it on their own. What it emphasizes is that there is a need for a truly open mobile operating system.”

That’s the approach Samsung is taking with Tizen, an open-source operating system developed in partnership primarily with Intel, as well as Huawei, Fujitsu, Panasonic, and others. If successful, Tizen could turn into a backup plan for Samsung’s booming Galaxy handset business should Google change the rules of the Android game for device makers.

The first Tizen smartphone is expected to ship this year, but even if it does, it will take multiple quarters—if not years—before Tizen becomes a viable platform, says Llamas. For the foreseeable future, Samsung is all about Android.

Alcatel One Touch Fire and ZTE OpenMartyn Williams
The first Firefox OS phones are already available overseas.

Other companies are also exploring their OS options. LG, presently one of the world’s top 5 smartphone makers thanks to its Android business, supports Mozilla’s Web technology–based Firefox OS project for mobile devices. The first Firefox OS smartphone was released in Spain this summer, and many more are coming down the pipeline. As if that’s not enough, LG gave Palm’s failed webOS a fourth lease on life earlier this year, albeit as a smart TV platform.

HTC, once the shining star of the Android world in the United States, has also experimented with Windows Phone, but that isn’t likely to continue in the near-term.

“I don’t expect to see much more to happen on the Windows side [from HTC], says Carolina Milanesi, research vice president for consumer devices at Gartner. “And certainly I think every vendor is now sitting and waiting to see what happens [with Windows Phone].”

But aside from its Android business and the flirtation with Windows Phone, HTC is also working on a mobile OS for the Chinese market, according to The Wall Street Journal—a move meant to shore up HTC’s business in other parts of the world as the company loses market share in this country—and meant, as well, to create a home-grown stack of hardware and software.

Making mountains out of mobile

It’s all about the apps when it comes to mobile—just ask the floundering Windows 8 and Windows Phone app stores.

Third-party manufacturers have good reason to sniff out new, open pastures, but creating a viable mobile platform isn’t easy, and it isn’t done overnight.

Any company wanting to follow Apple’s lead in tightly integrated hardware and software not only has to craft beautiful hardware, but also has to build an ecosystem filled with attractive third-party apps. Without big hits like Facebook, Instagram, Angry Birds, and Doodle Jump, any smartphone platform would have a hard time finding traction—just witness the struggles of the app-deprived Windows Phone and BlackBerry platforms.

The potential pitfalls for a new breed of manufacturer-made smartphone platforms don’t end there.

The world can’t support a large number of smartphone operating systems, all competing for the attention of the same developers, according to Gartner’s Milanesi. Apps are already slow to trickle down to lesser-used smartphone platforms. Every minute spent developing an app for Windows Phone or Tizen’s miniscule masses is a minute spent not creating apps for the vast hordes using Google Play and the iOS App Store, and because of that, wooing developers to new platforms is just plain hard.

Even a mobile platform with a large and sterling app catalog won’t necessarily have enough to win in today’s smartphone world. A killer platform also needs cloud-based services that sync data between multiple devices, and smart, on-demand features like Google Now and Siri. We expect a lot out of our phones these days.

A brewing smartphone storm

The Firefox OS developer phone.

With so much change happening in the smartphone market, there’s no telling what the future holds, and that goes doubly so for Android device makers who are wholly dependent on Google’s mobile OS. Fallback options like Windows Phone are looking even less promising than before.

That would be a problem should Google decide to give Motorola a more favored status among Android device makers, or if competitive forces (read: Samsung’s overwhelming Android dominance) compel Google to take a more active role in keeping Motorola and Android relevant.

True, that’s not likely to happen given Google’s hands-off approach to its OS, and for now, Android is still the solid choice for smartphone makers that like to focus on hardware alone. But Microsoft’s Nokia acquisition proved that drastic change can occur overnight. By cultivating open-source OS alternatives today, third-party hardware manufacturers could very well be sowing the seeds of their future survival.

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