The battlefield for mobile platforms and mobile applications becomes clear: fragmentation, innovation, and dead-ends


I was just interviewed on Sky Business this morning about the news coming out from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

In the plethora of announcements, what stands out for me is the increasing clarity of the emerging platforms battle, which is happening on two levels: mobile operating system and applications.

Mobile operating system

The launch of the iPhone 3G redefined how people thought about mobile devices. Now we are finally getting a range of serious and comparable alternatives.

The most visible of these is of course Android. Eric Schmidt said yesterday that there now 60,000 Android phones sold every day, and there appear to be new mobile models launched almost daily.

Symbian until recently has held 45% of the smartphone OS market, though mainly on lower-end devices. The open-sourcing of Symbian earlier this month and the announcement this week of Symbian ^3, which offers a very rich interactive platform.

Perhaps the biggest announcement at Mobile World Congress was Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 Series, which looks outstanding, though will not be available until the end of the year, which will give it a lot of catching up to do on its competitors.

In addition Intel and Nokia are merging their Linux mobile platforms to create MeeGo, which will run across almost any kind of connected device.

On the one hand this wide range of high-powered mobile platforms will transform how mobiles are used far beyond the early-adopter crowd. However the fragmentation of platforms is a serious problem, particularly given that there are now a number of very solid alternatives. Which takes us to the issue of applications.

Mobile applications

Last year $4.2 billion was spent on mobile applications, almost all on the iPhone. It is mobile applications that are changing what were previously phones into multi-functional mobile device with ever-expanding capabilities.

It will take some time for critical mass to develop in the other app stores. The Android Market is building momentum at a very solid pace. Even though many complain about the opaque approval processes in the iTunes store, it is possible that the lack of filtering in the Android Market will in fact hold it back as people lack confidence in the applications.

The critical role of mobiles apps is obvious enough that every platform has an apps strategy, with Vodafone, Nokia, Amdocs, Sony Ericsson and many others launching apps markets.

One of the more interesting announcements this week has been the Wholesale Applications Consortium, a group of 24 telcos who are seeking to build a common apps platform. It is bold, though as some have suggested, unlikely to succeed on the scale of its ambitions.

Across these initiatives is Adobe’s bid to run AIR-based applications across all mobile platforms. This has the potential to transcend the multiple platforms and app stores, though it will be harder to build in mechanisms to charge for the apps than it will be for platform-specific applications.

The rapid development of multiple mobile platforms will inevitably result in winners and losers, though for now it is largely fragmenting consumer choices and application developer energy.

Personal computers consolidated into two primary operating systems – Windows and Mac – by the mid to late 1980s. The mobile space looks unlikely to consolidate to anything like this degree for the foreseeable future. The upside is innovation at a far greater pace than we ever experienced in the PC space. The downside is massive lost energy going into what will eventually turn out to be dead-ends.