The post-Android market

It’s a new year, and we’re supposed to make some predictions. So I’ll try to order my thoughts about the post-Android market, although I should warn you I won’t make a true prediction but will be a bit wishy-washy and vague.

Back in September or October I was a lot more certain. Back then I predicted Android was going to be in trouble because of Google’s acquisition of Motorola.

My hypothesis is that Google’s acquisition of Motorola will make the other Android vendors look for other OSs to use. Google is now a player on the device market instead of just a software house, and Samsung, HTC, and the rest will start to think seriously about using another OS for their future devices.

Although this is still a very real problem for Android vendors, the lack of an alternative complicates matters considerably. Back in August I expected that webOS would be sold by HP in October at the latest to one Android vendor (privately I bet on HTC). Once that happened, other Android vendors would also start to cast around for alternatives.

The curious case of webOS

That did not happen. webOS will never be sold; instead it was open-sourced. This confused me mightily.

What happened? It turns out that HP asked $1.2 billion for webOS, and that’s way too much for an OS that has failed twice and has to be re-customised for new hardware once it’s been sold. Besides, it was reported that webOS was built on flawed software.

A third problem might be that HP demands too much influence on potential licensees, trying to position itself as a smartphone ecosystem curator like Apple and Google. There have been no reports on this (and it presupposes licensing instead of sale), but it’s something to keep in mind. Of course HP, not being a software house, has no chance of actually curating a succesful ecosystem, but that won’t stop it from trying.

On the other hand, Robert Cringely is positive, quoting especially webOS’s versatility. (Besides, he feels a truly open-sourced webOS would give HP the chance to build good hardware and compete with IBM and Oracle. A dinosaur competing with other dinosaurs will have zero impact on the smartphone market, so I ignore this angle.)

Update: See also Michael Mace's take on Palm: it did not have a redeeming killer feature that kept clients happy while the kinks were worked out of the system, and Palm's pockets weren't deep enough to keep it alive for a generation or two.

Other Android alternatives

The webOS debacle teaches us a valuable lesson: an OS is worthless without a device vendor making a major commitment to produce phones and push them to the operators’ sales channels.

Right now webOS does not have such an interested party, so its chances are bleak. On the other hand, this could change pretty quickly once a major vendor announces its intent to use the OS.

This device vendor intent is the most important feature as-yet lacking for two other potential Android replacements: Boot to Gecko and Tizen.

Mozilla people told me they’re working with a device vendor, but quite properly declined to name it. Samsung is Tizen’s co-chair, so one would assume it’s planning to take Tizen devices into production. Still, we’ll have to await more specific news before we can be certain that these OSs will become a significant factor for Android vendors.

I expect more news around Mobile World Congress, 27th of February to 1st of March. What we want to hear is that a vendor commits itself to one of these OSs.

The post-Android market

So what’s going to happen on the post-Android market? To be honest I don’t dare to make a prediction right now. Weasely, I know, but there you are. Let’s say I’ll return to this problem after MWC.

There’s no denying that Google has had an incredible stroke of luck when its insanity in buying Motorola was offset by HP’s insane handling of webOS. Android’s most direct competitor has disappeared in a cloud of vagueness, and the chance that Android vendors will defect from the flock has been diminished.

The best way of viewing the post-Android market is that all Android vendors are weighing their options, and that those options include Android. So if a vendor decides to continue with Android, that means it sees no better option right now.

That last occurrence would be bad for the smartphone market as a whole, I feel. It’s better to have healthy competition than to have one single OS occupy more than 50% of the market.

So let’s hope webOS, Boot to Gecko, and Tizen, all of which are HTML5-based, will be picked up by post-Android device vendors.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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