Business Users and the Coming Mobile OS Battles
I just came across an interesting analysis of the competitive landscape for mobile operating systems from Andreas Constantinou, a technical researcher with a Ph.D. in compression algorithms. Constantinou heads up Vision Mobile, a market analysis firm focused on the wireless sector. Among other things, he predicts that Microsoft may open source much of Windows Mobile, in response to challenges from an open source Symbian OS, Google's Linux-based Android platform, and the LiMo platform. Is this likely?
According to Constantinou: "The Symbian Foundation platform will be backwards compatible with Symbian OS 9, S60 3rd Edition. This backwards compatibility warranty isn't offered by either Android (which may suffer from fragmentation by design) or by LiMo (which effectively standardizes middleware and kernel, less so the application environment)."
Moreover, he says: "Windows Mobile is the only licensable OS for mid/high-end phones which doesn't have a consortium-based contribution model and an open-source-like license (apart from selected parts of the Windows CE source code which are under varying Shared Source licenses). I would expect Microsoft to react in the next quarter by open sourcing more of Windows Mobile."
Constantinou's points about backward compatibility and the position Microsoft is in are good ones. In many of the discussions I've seen on the emerging open source platforms for mobile devices, Windows Mobile is entirely left out. However, like the RIM and Good devices, it retains traction among many business users.
Even more to the point, regarding business use of mobile devices, many IT managers have a two-fisted grip on what workers are allowed to use. They're not necessarily going to give the nod to the 3G iPhone, new Linux-based phones, and the like until they're convinced that they can easily solve the problems mobile users have in the field, get support, and more. Backward compatibility also matters to them strongly. The Symbian Foundation's open source OS is likely to get the nod from many of them.
As for Microsoft, it would be a smart move for Microsoft to open source at least significant parts of Windows Mobile. That would allow developers to keep it competitive with many of the unique advantages that open source-based phones are likely to offer. Microsoft also has the deep pockets to fund application development for Windows Mobile. (Both RIM and Apple have huge funds for mobile application developers.)
I've been very impressed with the early wave of Android applications and I don't doubt that there will be good applications for the LiMo phones as well. However, in as far as they care about wooing the business market, the Linux-based mobile OS providers and Apple are going to have to contend with the peace-of-mind that Symbian, Nokia, RIM and Good provide to business users and IT managers. That's no small hurdle to jump over. As for Microsoft, open sourcing large parts of Windows Mobile would encourage fleet-footed responses to the new applications we're inevitably going to see from the open platforms.