As businesses get to grips with mobile phones for enterprise computing, the fragmented handset market is likely to consolidate. The big question is who will be the last man standing?
Mobile digital devices use common hardware components, but there are lots of proprietary and more or less open operating systems. The key to success is to get overwhelming support from independent application developers.
There are five main mobile phone platforms and one in the wings. Nokia owns the Symbian phone platform. Microsoft sells Windows Mobile, which is based on what used to be the CE platform. Palm has its Palm OS, which has already been partially supplanted by Windows Mobile on some of its hardware, and Research in Motion (RIM) has its own BlackBerry operating system. Apple's iPhone is based on the OS X platform, which is in turn built on the Mach microkernel-based BSD version of Unix.
There is no doubt which is selling best. Symbian sold 17.7 million units in western Europe last year, says Gartner. This is not surprising given the involvement of Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola in the project. This gave it a big lead over Microsoft, which was in second place with 4.9 million units sold. RIM sold 2.3 million copies of its OS, while other operating systems totalled 483,000 sales (including just 11,000 Palm OS units).
Then there is the Open Handset Alliance Android, which is driven by search firm Google. Android is a software stack for mobile devices that includes the Linux operating system (v2.6), middleware and key applications. It is free to mobile device manufacturers and software developers. Google has just released a new developer's kit. So far, only T-Mobile in the US has said it will support the platform.
Shiv Bakhshi, director of mobile devices, technology and trends at IDC, says Google is giving Android away under the Apache Software licence (ASL) scheme. Unlike version 2 of the GNU Public Licence, this lets developers use open source code without having to give back proprietary enhancements to the open source software community.
Google hopes that not having to navigate the inner workings of proprietary technologies will persuade more developers to adopt the platform and build on top of it, he said. Google can afford this approach because it depends on services and advertising rather than income from software sales.
Other vendors have so far taken a more proprietary approach to platform development. Apple took months to release the software developer's kit for iPhone code. And it wants to vet all iPhone applications before it stocks them in its online store. Anyone who wants to work around Apple's prescription must target the "jailbroken" phones users have unlocked. This cuts their potential market.
Microsoft, which sells only the operating system, is also proprietary in its approach to code, but its .Net framework includes a large set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for developers.
Nokia, which is buying out Symbian's shareholders, plans to use the newly formed Symbian Foundation to put the operating system into the public domain by 2010. Some see this as a defensive move in response to Android's openness.
How far will these platforms penetrate the enterprise market? Much will depend on how many applications there are for the platform. Apple has lined up £50m funding with venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to spend with iPhone and iPod developers. Focus areas include location-based services, social networking, m-commerce (including advertising and payments), communication and entertainment.
Google has set aside £5m to support Android developers and is holding coding competitions to find best-of-breed applications.
Symbian, through Nokia, is already well-proven in enterprise circles, with its support for applications such as Oracle, and Microsoft has a version of SQL Server for iPhone.
RIM has enviable consumer loyalty. Millions of senior and middle managers are addicted to their "CrackBerries", giving IT departments a security headache that will not go away. It already has versions of Siebel's CRM running on the Blackberry.
Microsoft also has a tight grip on the business world with its Windows Mobile platform. The firm has the advantage of owning the desktop and the server infrastructure of many organisations. With encryption of both removable media and in-phone memory built into version 6.0 of the mobile software, compliance-driven firms seem more willing to embrace it.
Apple has to convince the enterprise to buy the iPhone. The 3G's problems with dropped calls, poor battery life and overheating batteries, which Apple claims to have fixed, may delay adoption.
Gartner says the iPhone is ready for business, in spite of its lack of native encryption. The capacity in iPhone 2.0 to integrate with MS Exchange is clearly meant to court business users, but RIM and Microsoft already have this nailed down.
Most of the end user and enterprise value in these platforms is likely to come from third-party application developers. The extent to which people target a platform depends on what it gives them. Money, market share, an air of openness and a robust set of development tools may decide the winner.
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This was first published in August 2008