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Welcome To The Smartphone Wars

We are now enjoying an operating system war over the small but very valuable smartphone segment of the mobile phone market. The frequently asked question is: will it follow the same path as the PC operating system war? This resulted in Microsoft Windows taking more than 90 per cent of the market, with Apple’s Mac OS marginalised.

At the moment, there’s plenty of competition. Nokia is still the leading smartphone supplier with a 39.3 per cent share of the market, according to the IDC’s latest Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, released on May 6. Nokia is followed by Research in Motion (10.6 per cent) and Apple (8.8 per cent). Another 10 per cent is split between HTC and Motorola, which supply phones running Google’s Linux-based Android operating system and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. Palm’s webOS is off the chart, but the company has been taken over by the world’s largest computer manufacturer, Hewlett-Packard, so it could get a second life.

This particular OS war extends beyond the smartphone market. Apple is using what it now calls iOS in the iPod touch and iPad media tablet as well as the iPhone, and it could well appear in the next Apple TV. Android will also run on tablets such as the Dell Streak 7 and 10, and will be used for Google TV. Microsoft’s Phone 7, due before Christmas, draws on the Zune MP3 player and could be adapted for tablets. HP is planning to launch tablets running webOS. Nokia’s Symbian^3 -- which will make its first appearance in the N8 phone -- at least has potential.

An overview of Nokia's N8 phone

This might seem like a lot of operating systems to people who have become used to the limited choices available in the PC and games console markets, but it’s not. Many more companies competed for the mainframe and minicomputer markets. The microcomputer market had dozens of suppliers including Acorn, Amstrad, Apple, Atari, Commodore, Sinclair and Tandy, plus a number of alternative operating systems such as Digital Research’s CP/M and GEM, Microware’s OS9, IBM’s OS/2, and several versions of Unix.

New markets attract new competitors, but there’s always a shake-out. The industry can’t afford to support everything, so developers focus on the most popular systems, and users gravitate towards the ones that offer the best choice of software and hardware. The losers go bust, leaving one or two dominant platforms and a handful hanging on in niches.

Having a dominant platform suits business buyers because they want to preserve their huge investments in data, in programming and staff training for decades, or forever. But you can actually persuade consumers to throw away their investments and start again every five or six years. The games industry has managed to do that through successive platforms from the Atari VCS through the Nintendo NES, Sega Mega Drive, Sony PlayStation and PlayStation 2 to today’s market, which is split between Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

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