The OS Wars Are Back

by Chris Howard Jul 11, 2007

Did you believe Steve when he said a decade ago the OS war was over? Like the browser war, it seems it was only in hiatus. The mother of all OS wars is about to hit.

Personal computers-wise, in the past we’ve seen a few OS wars: DOS/Windows versus the rest; Windows 95 versus Mac OS; and Linux versus Mac OS X versus Windows 2000/XP/Vista.

However, look out for an OS war on mobile phones, and the rise and rise of smartphones.

The smartphone for all
The computer market is small compared to the mobile phone market. According to Bloomberg, annual sales of mobile phones are around four times that of personal computers.

Granted the smart phone section of this market is small, currently much less than the PC market, and Apple’s entry is going to shake things up in more than one way. Firstly, it challenges the whole design of smartphones, but more importantly, it is bringing people into that market who until now were not interested.  As former Senior Editor of TreoCentral, Michael Ducker, says on Phone Different, “Apple has introduced the age of the smartphone to normal people.”

Is Apple’s phone truly a smartphone? Currently not, taking the strictest definition which allows for third-party application development and access to the system’s API. But that strict definition is being challenged by Apple and its phone.

What Apple’s entry does is blur the line between gadget phones and smartphones. That Bloomberg article says Apple has sold 700,000 iPhones. How many of those were bought by people who would never have bought a Treo or Blackberry? Quite a lot.

As the line continues to blur and phones become the ultimate convergent device, with decent cameras, full PDA, MP3 players, GPS, video players, and internet access, then phones that are just phones will become rarer and rarer. People will accept—and expect—that their phones will be all those things plus a portable computer.

Within a few years, what we once called smartphones will dominate the mobile phone market to the tune of one billion sales annually by 2012.

And, in regards to OS wars, this means the big one. Steve was drooling over 1% at MWSF, imagine how keen Apple would be to get 10 or 20% of mobile phones carrying the Apple OS? Likewise Microsoft and Windows.

The competitors
So let’s just step back and look at the situation. Currently, the smart phone market is dominated by Symbian, jointly owned by Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, and others, and Symbian holds about 70% of the smartphone market.

Apple has entered the mobile phone market with its own device—unlike previously where it partnered with an existing manufacturer (Motorola). However, Apple is following the same proprietary, non-licensed path as it did with the Mac (unsuccessfully), and the iPod (very successfully). The iPhone will fall somewhere in between, but Apple needs to be careful it’s not towards the Mac end.

Apple has left that door wide open for Microsoft to do another “PC” and get its OS on all the phones Apple doesn’t have—which currently stands at 99% of the market, or 97% of the smartphone market. That gives Microsoft free rein at all the other mobile phone manufacturers. And as we know from Windows, it doesn’t matter if it’s not better, as long as it’s similar. Small players have already adopted Windows.

Bill Gates would be pretty happy knowing that Apple will likely never license its phone OS to other manufacturers. Ironically, the best thing that could happen for Microsoft is for the iPhone to sell well.

Although it’s unlikely that Apple can capture huge market share like it did with the iPod, if it starts nudging 5% of the existing smart phone market, traditional mobile phone manufacturers, despite their investment in Symbian, will start to get a little nervous. Look at Palm for example. It dominated the handheld market but eventually went to Microsoft and Windows Mobile for a lifeline.

Symbian, on figures from last year, claims around 70% of the smartphone market, and Microsoft around 7%. Visually, Symbian already looks good, but can it produce an OS to match Apple’s or Microsoft’s? And quickly. What significant consumer-visible leverage does it have? What consumer has heard of Symbian?

Microsoft will always have the leverage of its desktop market and Apple its iPod market and to a lesser extent, its Mac market. What’s Symbian got? All of a sudden, despite being the dominant market share holder, it’s got to prove itself. Its anonymity could hurt it.

Looking at the Symbian phones available, how many of them have captured the public consciousness? Not even close to what Apple has done. The Nokia N77, which is coming soon, sounds pretty hot and feature-competitive with the iPhone, but who’s heard of it? Who’s talking about it?

Other OSes do exist in the phone market, such as Linux and RIM, but they will always struggle. Linux should challenge but drags one big millstone. No one in the Linux community seems to understand user friendliness. Just take a look at Ubuntu, which is claimed to be the user friendly Linux. Back to the drawing board. Linuxes are usually either too geek friendly or too Windows similar. Smartphones are going to be all about user friendliness, so Linux faces an uphill battle. Not surprisingly, it lost a quarter of its market share to Microsoft in Q1 2007 compared to Q1 2006.

It’s the software, stupid!
This new war isn’t about the device, the hardware. As Michael Ducker says in his essay on Phone Different:

Hype aside, the iPhone is the game-changing device that will turn the cellphone market from being about hardware to being about software. That’s no small task given that the main customers of cellphones (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile) haven’t seemed to care much at all about software. Instead they’ve focused on encouraging handset makers to go ever sleeker and smaller, marketing each subsequent handset as the next sexy fashion accessory. That was great and all, but we’re pretty close to an optimal size for a hold-in-your-hand handset. Where is the innovation going to happen next? Aside from power management, it will happen in the interactions you have with the device. And these interactions are governed by software.

The software starts with the OS.

With the smartphone market headed to one billion units in the next five years, expect a big fight for OS market share.

Forget what functionality the iPhone has or has not, it has already changed the expectation of what a mobile phone is. Fulfilling that new expectation is going to kick off a huge OS war between Apple, Microsoft, and Symbian.

And the winner? You.



  • It will be interesting to see if Apple go 3G in Europe and Asia - be nice if they do, we could get one-up on the Yanks for once.! wink And I really think they’ll have no choice. -Chris

    Apple made a good, if not prudent, business move by going GSM/EDGE and not UMTS/HSDPC with the first release. After all, offering GSM/EDGE offered the Greatest Common Factor (GCF) when serviceability and usability was the top priority. The initial iPhone had to cover the majority of U.S. cities and not just the few privileged locales such as L.A., San Fran, or NY.

    3G (to most folks unfamiliar with cell communications) but UMTS/WCDMA and its data overlay HSDPA (to veterans) is the future of GSM and its data overlay EDGE. For now, GSM/EDGE has the edge over UMTS/HSDPA in terms of coverage around the globe. And that is very important to remember for an initial groundbreaking product like the iPhone as it will help its rate of adoption.

    I remember a few years back when EDGE was the new kid in town and GPRS was the little boy kicking the old man dial-up’s behind. Those were the days weren’t it? Now, they say EDGE is so “pokey” compared to the “theoretical” 2 Mbps of HSDPA.

    Don’t get me started for I play around with 675Mbps wireless prototypes everyday. It is my job to evaluate real speed-burners not “theoretical” 2 Mbps sloths. To me, to be really useful as a video conduit, the pipe has to be at least 100Mbps isochronous not best effort like cellular packet delivery or even wi-fi a/b/g/n! All are lame in comparison. Ever asked why YouTube (and clones) use only an eighth of your screen real-state to be viewable even with a 10Mbps cable modem? Think about that for a second.

    So, to “get one up the Yanks” appear to be a correct phrasing in the cellular conveniences of theoretical 2Mbps best-effort packet deliveries, this is not even exciting compared to what I am playing in the labs right now.

    No, I am not talking EV-DO. Something else better that will be called 4G and 5G by you folks in Europa and Asia. We’ll just call it the best wireless ever put on a mobile here in America.

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 14, 2007 Posts: 846
  • You tease, Robo! smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jul 14, 2007 Posts: 1209
  • Another factor lies in a recent article that indicates that most, if not all of the iPods in existence are running OS X. So Apple already has a mobile OS currently supporting over a hundred million devices.

    What if they decide to license it, and take on Windows Mobile/CE and Symbian on yet another front?

    ahmlco had this to say on Jul 15, 2007 Posts: 6
  • @ahmlco,

    Re: iPods running OSX.

    You’re talking about that RDM piece, right?  Its source is an April Fool’s Joke, so take that article with a grain of salt.

    Not to say that iPods won’t eventually run OSX; his Steveness himself has said so.


    Great article!  Nice to a piece that takes a look at the situation objectively without unnecessary bashing. I especially like this line: “Ironically, the best thing that could happen for Microsoft is for the iPhone to sell well”.  So true.


    “RIM will concede defeat and crown the iPhone king of smartphones in due time”

    Um, right.  It’s still too early to tell.  Everyone expected RIM to slowly decline when the iPhone came out; instead, its stock went gangbusters.  It’ll be an interesting fight, though…will they replace “Blackberry Thumb” with “Apple Arthritis”?  smile

    MojoJojo had this to say on Jul 16, 2007 Posts: 14
  • @Mojo

    Yeah, RIM will not cry “uncle” just yet. They seem to have good engineering mojo (pun not intended) to hold onto their lead for several years.

    Yet RIM does not have the heavy cojones that Apple can pull from the carriers as big as AT&T or Verizon. Having the heavy ones that can dictate conditions such as the iPhone terms is unprecedented.

    RIM may try to pull something similar but they’ve already given up too much already for the Pearl and Curve to matter anymore. Too subsidized.

    As for the run-up of their share price lately. Thanks to the iPhone for not having tie-ups to “push” Exchange at the interim, their investors were too relieved I supposed. BUT, don’t count on Apple for it is only a matter of a “firmware update” to add that functionality or a “deal” with the big, bad MS - any bets?

    As for that RDM article concerning the Digg April Fools joke about the “OSX” iPod. Although, I do not believe that the iPod does run an equivalent OSX as in the iPhone, that is due to memory constraints not hw capability. Two powerful 32-bit ARMs are embedded in the hw decoding and processing circuits, mind you - like the iPhone? So, if the iPod was indeed running “OSX” it is that its lower levels - Mach kernel, BSD system and userland, and HAL - and that’s it. It wasn’t meant to carry the upper Cocoa-like frameworkks nor Quartz graphic rendering. So, RDM may be on to something here. I can give Dan Eran more than a pound of salt myself.

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 16, 2007 Posts: 846
  • A comment on Robotech’s comments on Symbian- I am afraid I do not agree that ‘When a company’s management and operations are controlled by multitude of big multinationals such as Nokia, Ericsson, Sony-Ericsson, Panasonic,Siemens/BenQ ( one would cautiously say that they are not free to be creative but driven mostly by the needs of their owners.’

    Knowing Symbian very well wink it has never been my impresssion or observation that this is the case. Certainly Nokia has large influence, but who not not listen to the number #1 handset manufacturer smile I am sure Nokia would wish it was different too. Symbian are definately very customer driven, like all good businesses

    And a correction on the iPod also from Robotech- the iPod nano does indeed have two ARM7 cores (, but the 2nd gen Nano does not use completely the same arcitecture, the iPhone is very different and has several ARM cores.

    Also got my grubby hands on the iPhone today- very very cool, the interface is really as good as the adverts- and the texting (which is the acid test for Europe as we send loads) even after several minutes had started to adapt to my two-thumbed typing- Impressive indeed.

    KevMc had this to say on Jul 16, 2007 Posts: 4
  • A number of posters have talked about the iPhone (and other phones) as if they exist in a vacuum.

    It’s not just about the phone anymore.

    “Digital Convergence”:  We’ve been hearing this phrase since the early 90’s (and so much so that it’s almost a joke) but in the last couple years, we’ve actually started to see the reality of its promise.

    Set top boxes and computers, phones and computers, cd players and computers and… well, just about anything else [and computers].

    Gates is hoping the Xbox will become the hub of people’s media experience, but the Xbox doesn’t have those other computing capabilities. It won’t sync your appointments and such to a phone or PDA. It’s strictly a media center. So does that make the Windows PC the hub?  Well, no, because there isn’t really an all encompassing data exchange mechanism in place between the two.

    The Xbox will allow you to download movies—but can you view them on your PC? The PC <-> Xbox combo isn’t a true hub and spoke because in some cases, you put content on your PC that can be played by the Xbox, but in other cases, the content goes directly to your Xbox, but can’t be moved to the PC.

    Jobs, on the other hand, sees the Mac as the hub with the AppleTV, the iPhone, the iPod, etc at the spokes. The data mechanism is iTunes.

    It’s not going to be an OS war in the way we had in the past. It is a software war, but not the way it’s portrayed in this article. The war will be “Who can make the best software to make all these devices talk to one another and share data?”

    Thus far, it’s iTunes… available for the Mac *and* Windows.

    Symbian has no control over other parts of the equation—it does only phones, so how they’ll compete in the digital convergence space is all but unknown. Same with Nokia.

    Microsoft is the only ones that could challenge the iTunes hegemony, but thus far don’t seem to get it. The Xbox is a hub; the Windows PC is a hub; the smart phone is a hub; They have no spokes!  There is no one piece of software the really pulls them all together seamlessly like iTunes does.

    We’ll have to see if the Vista “Sync Center” matures. Right now, it’s a mess. It’s not really well integrated with the “spokes” in this media equation.

    From it’s own page on

    “Though it unifies your various sync activities, please note that Sync Center does not replace third-party sync tools or functionality. For example, a Windows Mobile device will still use its own infrastructure—Windows Mobile Device Center—to perform the actual synchronization of data with a Windows Vista computer.”

    Why isn’t the Windows Mobile Device Center integrated with Sync Center? What about Windows Media Player?  Why isn’t it integrated with the Sync Center? Photo Gallery? Why isn’t the Sync Center the *actual* center of synchronizing data to/from your Windows PC instead of all these separate apps?

    This is where Apple has the huge lead. It’s simple to sync your data to all your separate devices with a single interface: iTunes.

    Until Microsoft gets that, Apple will continue to hold the spotlight in the digital convergence space.

    Anyone else is an also-ran because they don’t create all the different media devices. Aside from Microsoft (and possibly Sony), Apple is the only one that has computers, television, music, phones and the software to run them all together. Microsoft doesn’t get it and Sony doesn’t appear to have any focus in this spaces, which is oddly strange since they are both a media *and* electronic company.

    It’s not about the OS on the computer… It’s not wholly about the OS on the phone… It’s about getting data easily to and from all your devices.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Jul 16, 2007 Posts: 243
  • The war will be “Who can make the best software to make all these devices talk to one another and share data?”

    Good point, VB. And you’re right, Apple is leading that race.

    What has happened to Microsoft? Why does it seem so inept at competing beyond the PC? Why isn’t the obvious obvious to them?

    MS still have prime position, but they continually seem to be like a dazed and bloated hare, watching the turtles crawl into view.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jul 16, 2007 Posts: 1209
  • KevMc, I do disagree with a first-hand experience with a now large bureaucratic corporation. We can agree that Nokia or Ericsson has to be in this category. Any good company surpassing a certain mass. I am not so sure myself or if anyone has set a number of employees to reach this point but let’s say north of 10,000 employees.

    Anyway, in such a corporate environment, the usual organizational division starts from the CEO holding one side of the corporate bracket, the COO/President the other bracket. From there to the other C-levels, senior VPs, then junion VPs, directors, and so on.

    As you can imagine, the chain gets pretty long and that, oh too often, results in unneeded bureaucracy to get anything done in a prompt and timely matter. Apple is different in that The Steve nano-manages everything and everywhere in Cupertino. Everyone is accountable to only one man - he can glorify you or skewer you to hell in a quick finger swipe of his zirconia iPhone. That makes Apple very agile and proactive. They have a visionary that can see farther than most when it comes to what matters the most: customer expectation.

    I hope you do know Symbian that well because those guys have to answer to many board members holding the chopping axes like that Scream character.

    I hope you are right that Symbian is quick, responsive, agile, creative, and inventive for they will need everything now that Apple has joined their party. RIM joined a while back but had too much too drink and kept its mouth shut. RIM had no cojones to tell the wireless party poopers they were in for a good shake after the iPhone debuts. No, RIM and Symbian were too cozy to get in bed with the rest of the oligopolistic industry. Good luck to those two.

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 17, 2007 Posts: 846
  • As for which iPod has the minimum number of ARM 7TDMI cores, doesn’t matter. Older iPods had two cores and recent 5Gs and nanos have only one variable speed core to conserve battery better.

    The point of the RDM article is that these ARM-powered iPods now point to a Mach/BSD foundation all along with Pixo glazing the UI renderer and application layers.

    If this is correct, and I give Dan Eran good analytic credit, then Apple is merely a flick-of-a-switch away from unleashing a software platform numbering more than a 100-million to date. Oh, and Bill and his MS empire would be really, really pissed of this pending news, indeed.

    Goodbye, Windows Mobile. It’s been nice knowing your latest marketing name, Win Ce. Good Riddance!

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 17, 2007 Posts: 846
  • Yes Rob do not disagree that they are large organisations. Although, they seem to be doing something right given the sheer number of phones these guys (Nokia) turn out, and the market dominance they have. We need to remember the smartphone (however defined) is a small fraction of the total mobile market, which is in excess of 1.2 billion a year

    Regards Apple, and I am a huge fan being on my 2nd iPod Nano, and bought a Mac after reading the Steve Jobs book iCon. They are without doubt the most innovative company in the high-tech space, and Steve’s vision is a big part of this and Steve’s micro management works, without doubt. Having played with the iPhone, it is a dream of styling and a wonderful UI.

    I guess I come back to my main point, which is the PC world and mobile world are different, in their nature and how to get things done and the future is multiple OS, not two.

    Personally I think Apple will be very successful and appeal to a portion of the market, I do not think Microsoft will disappear, and I think Symbian will continue to grow well, the OEM’s own OS will not disappear anytime soon.

    Apple’s entry into the market without doubt will drive innovation in other companies, which I think is a very healthy thing.

    Symbian to my knowledge has not make such decisions, in the manner described. Especially given its recent growth smile

    Anyway, enough said from me on this subject smile

    KevMc had this to say on Jul 17, 2007 Posts: 4
  • Apple’s entry into the market without doubt will drive innovation in other companies, which I think is a very healthy thing. -KevMc

    Agree wholefully on this one. Symbian with its “locked” dominance in feature phones courtesy of its parents Nokia & Ericsson will not entirely disappear. The majority of feature phones will still be running some type of Symbian OS. The Symbian UI will evolve to appear very innovative like the iPhone UI.

    What I was trying to say without the proper words was the industry will now dance to Apple’s own tune as unleashed with the iPhone design & UI. It is wake up time for the industry to start being more customer-oriented and likable instead of being hated and disgusted by their service qualities and boring product offerings. Any readers have great things to say about their cell service providers? ‘Thought so… wink

    Aside from the phone OS (which we don’t really mess with) innovations and progressive moves such as T*Mobile HotSpot announcement to allow seamless and free wi-fi voice calling over their cellular networks is unprecedented. Much like the iPhone, it will be a game-changing move and a good example for the industry, as a whole, to follow. It is this “customer oriented” products and services that will matter from iDay onward.

    So, although Apple themselves will not produce the world’s majority supply of mobile phones they will command 100% of design and execution R*E*S*P*E*C*T at the utmost. Much like in the PC industry, Apple will command a minority stake but what a treasure those loyal customers are. They keep the Apple bottom-line expanding even through hard times for others (Dell?).

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 17, 2007 Posts: 846
  • You did a fair job on the article but I think there’s some things you leave out.  OS X is derived from UNIX.  Apple put an industry leading UI over what’s a difficult system to use and nobody seems to notice.  While Linux, which is also derived from UNIX, you correctly point out it’s UI difficulties.  However, whose to say that a company or group could not take Linux and adapt it for smart phones.  This is the approach that Palm is taking, but since they are at it for a short period of time it leads one to believe that they’ve got a long way to go to catch Apple.

    Microsoft is an interesting candidate to create a version of Vista for the smart phone (as if they needed another version of Vista) however how likely are they to follow the PC makers and have Mr. Softie dictate hardware requirements to them for their OS?

    I doubt that Symbian has the juice to catch OS X/Unix when it comes to running a scaled down PC which is what Apple is selling.  I’m sure that won’t prevent companies from trying to spruce it up and sell it on upscale phones.  The problem is that it’s going to take too long to develop (something that they just don’t have) because they’re solving a simple problem to a much harder one.  Apple already solved the complex problem and only had to scale down OX X for a handheld.

    The Reptile had this to say on Jul 17, 2007 Posts: 1
  • The Reptile said: I doubt that Symbian has the juice to catch OS X/Unix when it comes to running a scaled down PC which is what Apple is selling.

    Nice point, sums up Symbian’s problem well.

    If they’ve been smart, they will have been preparing for this day and already have spent years developing their OS up to a down scaled PC OS.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jul 17, 2007 Posts: 1209
  • Microsoft is an interesting candidate to create a version of Vista for the smart phone… Reptile

    Yeah, complete with the Registry and all the .Net baggage. In short, it would be a disaster!

    Hey cold-blooded one, have you heard of Windows Mobile 6? This is Mr. Softie’s latest attempt to look like OSX on mobile. ‘You like that? Well, it is available now fully stocked at your latest T*Mobile outlet. Gotta catch ‘em while you can… wink

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 21, 2007 Posts: 846
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