May 31, 2009

The war of the mobile platforms

A smartphone is a highly sophisticated piece of technology. Besides being highly functional, having a long battery life, these devices also need to make its owner look good. The trouble with smartphones (and al other mobile devices for that matter) is that most of their owners probably aren't aware of or even appreciate the complexity and sophistication of their phones. But thanks to the OpenMOKO project, which specifies an open source smartphone architecture, we now all can be.

Smartphone users commonly "just" want something that allows them to make phone calls and access online services wherever they are, download & install new applications and games, shoot pictures and share them with their friends and family, navigate from A to B, find nearby points of interest, download and listen to or view various rich media (audio, video) and much more. And all of that needs to fit inside something no bigger than a modest bar of chocolate and look no less irresistible than that too. Nothing special really...

The mobile communications and mobile internet market is currently being seen as the market with the biggest boom. We all want a slice of that pie. Apple wanted and got a big slice with their iPhone, Google takes an aim at the pie with their Android platform, Sun Microsystems was also drooling at the pie and launched JavaFX, Palm on the other hand is trying to maintain as much of slice it previously had by introducing the new mobile platform Web OS and the Palm Pre (could it be the iPhone killer?). Adobe is porting their flash player to the ARM processor platform to increase the almost non-existent Flash Player penetration on mobile devices. Of course, Nokia, is trying to maintain the size of their slice with their Symbian platform. Then there is of course RIM and their familiy of blackberries representing a significant slice of the mobile market pie. And let's not forget about Microsoft's Windows Mobile, which is rather popular and comes shipped with cool phones such as the LG Cookie and the SonyEricsson Xperia. Windows Mobile 7 is on its way, although typically delayed and is tipped to be a possible iPhone killer too (go figure).

When you buy a cell phone, it already has its operating system installed on it, and a number of applications and games too. Depending on the model, you can usually add more applications and games. The type of applications you can install and run on your phone obviously depend on the capabilities of the phone (GPS, networking capabilities, user interaction capabilities, and so on) and on the operating system that runs on the phone.

Unfortunately, applications usually aren't interchangeable between the mobile platforms. A blackberry app won't run on an iPhone, and a Symbian game won't work on an Android phone. However, if JavaFX catches on (version 1.5 is rumoured to be released on JavaOne 2009), or if Adobe manages to also make their flash player as ubiquitous on mobile devices as it currently is on PCs or if Palm's Web OS (Webkit based) miraculously catches on (don't be surprised if it does) and is conforming to open Web standards, we should see that change.

Will Google's Android become the default mobile platform? I doubt it, and I don't think it would be good to have a single dominant platform. What we need are open mobile application platforms for developing cross platform mobile applications. Note the plural "platforms". I mean to say that we need both openness and choice, because application developers need to be able to choose their platform of choice, and customers need to be able to choose their platform of choice without needing to worry if they can use popular applications.