The mobile operating system landscape has been rattled a bit lately. Mozilla launched its Firefox OS, LG purchased webOS, and Samsung has renewed focus on Tizen. But given that iOS and Android currently dominate the market – they reside on 90 per cent of all mobiles devices today – do we really need a new mobile operating system? And if so, how would it fare?
It is pretty clear that iOS will be Apple's only mobile OS and Blackberry OS will be BlackBerry's only, but other smartphone and tablet vendors have the choice of Android, Windows 8, or Windows Phone 8. They can also fork Android as Amazon has done with the Kindle Fire HD tablets or opt for Firefox OS, Tizen, mobile Linux, and others.
With the strong market adoption of Android and iOS, and the rich ecosystem of apps and services tied to both, even Microsoft and BlackBerry will have a tough time gaining any ground. On the surface, these newer mobile operating systems could have an even tougher time since they lack such immersive ecosystems tied to their new OS offerings. But maybe not.
I believe that these new mobile OS options may play an important strategic role in the market. Google, whose Android market share is exploding, benefits greatly from having Android on vendors' devices, and it gives its partners a paltry portion of any ad revenue that comes through those partnerships. It is true that some of the smaller handset makers may continue to back Android no matter what, but if a vendor has a lot of clout, a mobile OS alternative could give it some interesting leverage against Google.
Samsung’s weapon of choice?
This could become a real weapon for Samsung, which is by far Android's biggest supporter. In fact, many now think "Samsung" when they hear the word "Android." Today, Samsung gets only ten per cent of any ad revenue that Google earns from adverts sold through a Samsung device. It is pretty clear that Samsung now has much influence with Google and if it is smart, it will try and use this in its favour. Of course, Google would have a hard time handing over more of the ad revenue to any partner, even to a force like Samsung, lest it set a precedent for other Android vendors who would want similar terms.
Samsung's decision to fold its mobile OS, Bada, into Tizen could be a first step in a strategic dance with Google. I have heard from a few other handset vendors that while they make Google and Android more successful, their return on the investment of Android is minimal to them. Android is technically free, but they pay through the nose in terms of ad revenue they must surrender to Google as part of the licensing deal. At the same time, word on the street says that Google is fretting about Samsung's strong mobile market penetration and fears that Samsung could come back and ask for a larger share of advertising revenues.
Interestingly, should Samsung decide that negotiating its terms with Google is just too onerous, it is conceivable that the company could produce its own version of Android like Amazon does. This way, it could keep all of the ad revenue for itself. Or, given its new push with Tizen, it could threaten to drop Android and slowly migrate all of its customers to Tizen while developing some form of virtual translator that would allow Android apps to work on Tizen.
I can't see Samsung becoming some great powerhouse in mobile without, at some point, taking control of its entire ecosystem, including owning and controlling the mobile OS. By sitting still, it would just continue to feed the Google bank and leave a lot of money on the table that should go into its pockets.
I doubt that Firefox OS, mobile Linux, or other mobile operating systems will gain serious traction in mainstream markets, but there could be interest for them in emerging markets. In fact, in his Forward Thinking blogIs there room for a new mobile OS? , Michael Miller points out how many emerging market telecoms were especially interested in Firefox OS at Mobile World Congress. He also calls attention to two very big telecom companies that are supporting Tizen in developed countries: Japan's NTT Docomo and French carrier Orange.
These new mobile operating systems provide vendors with exciting possibilities. Should any vendors fear that Google is getting too powerful, these alternatives give them less of an incentive to back Android. In that case, the new entries could aid vendors in wrestling more profits from Google or provide them with a solid alternative so that they can better control their own mobile destiny.