As the mobile OS market fragments, mobile browsers are consolidating
During a panel at Web 2.0 Expo, someone asked if the panelists saw any signs that suggest mobile operating system fragmentation might decrease.
One of the panelists had a blunt answer: «No. There will be more fragmentation.»
It is striking to see the different trajectories mobile operating systems are on when compared to the mobile web.
In 2006, two smartphone operating systems accounted for 81 percent of the market. There were really only four platforms to worry about: Symbian, Windows Mobile, RIM, and Palm OS. These represented 93 percent of the market.
|Sources: Canalys, 2006. Gartner: 2007, 2008, 2009.|
|Windows Phone 7||?|
Fast-forward to the present and the picture is different. No single operating system has more than 50 percent marketshare. There are seven operating systems being tracked and even within operating systems there are fragmentation concerns.
The future promises more operating system fragmentation, not less:
- In February, Nokia and Intel joined forces to create a new open source smartphone operating system called MeeGo.
- HP’s purchase of Palm means that WebOS isn’t going away any time soon.
- Windows Phone 7 will replace Windows Mobile, but not immediately. It is also unclear how Kin fits into the picture.
- Samsung will ship its own operating system called Bada later this summer. Before you discount Bada, remember that Samsung has the highest percentage of U.S. mobile subscribers, sells more touch screen phones than anyone else, and aims to sell 18 million smartphones this year.
- HTC is rumored to be considering its own operating system. HTC is the fourth largest manufacturer of smartphones.
- Motorola is rumored to have bought its own mobile operating system. Motorola co-CEO Sanjay Jha said during Q1’s earnings call, «I continue to believe that at some point … that owning our own OS will be a very important thing.»
This list doesn’t include differences within each particular operating system. Much has been made of Android fragmentation due to different user experiences like MotoBlur and HTC’s Sense UI. And some argue that even the homogenous iPhone platform is starting to fragment.
There are more mobile operating systems coming and no signs of the mobile OS market narrowing any time soon.
The mobile web is converging
By contrast, the mobile web is converging on HTML5 and WebKit.
Unlike mobile operating systems, mobile browsers were fragmented a few years ago. The list of early mobile browsers include a series of proprietary browser engines:
- jB5 Browser
- Polaris Browser
- Internet Explorer Mobile
- Blackberry Browser
That’s a fraction of the browser options that were available to mobile phone users. And while there is still work to be done to make mobile browsers more consistent, it is nothing compared to the inconsistencies between early mobile browsers.
Today, every mobile browser is moving toward HTML5 support, if it isn’t there already:
|Blackberry 6 Browser||Webkit||Yes|
|Internet Explorer||Internet Explorer 7||No|
|Bada OS Browser||Webkit||Yes?|
|Opera Mobile||Opera Presto 2.2||Yes|
|Opera Mini||Opera Presto 2.2||Yes|
|Myriad (former Openwave)||Webkit||No|
There are a couple of things to keep in mind about this list:
- The only major browser that definitely will not support HTML5 is Internet Explorer, but Internet Explorer 9 for desktop is going to support HTML5. Eventually the mobile browser will as well.
- Saying a browser supports HTML5 does not mean it supports the full HTML5 spec right now. It simply means that it supports a portion of the spec and is on track to support it fully.
WebKit: The dominant mobile platform
The WebKit browser engine now has a dominant position in mobile browsers. When BlackBerry ships its new browser based on WebKit, 85 percent of smartphones will ship with a WebKit-based browser.
Just because a device uses WebKit does not mean it has the latest version of WebKit and can use HTML5 fully. PPK has documented the many inconsistencies between WebKit implementations. Alex Russell makes a compelling counterpoint that the inconsistencies aren’t that bad if you factor in when the browsers shipped.
WebKit is also used by numerous feature phones. Vision Mobile estimates that at the end of 2009, WebKit had been embedded in more than 250 million devices.
Advancing the mobile browser
In many ways, HTML5 is just the baseline of where mobile browsers are headed. Many companies, from carriers to handset manufacturers, are looking to mobile browser innovation as a key to their mobile strategies.
- Sony Ericsson worked with the PhoneGap community to create its WebSDK.
- Symbian is wooing developers with access to the dialer, calendar, camera, contacts and other tools using web technology.
- Forty carriers and handset manufacturers have formed the Wholesale Application Community to build an open platform that will work on all devices. They seek to combine JIL and BONDI. JIL and BONDI provide access to device APIs via web technology.
There are two common threads in each of these stories.
First, companies throughout the ecosystem are extending mobile browsers to provide more functionality and attract developers to their platforms. Second, they are all approaching it in similar ways built on HTML widget technology.
Much like WebKit, there will be inconsistencies between these efforts in the near term, but all of these efforts are headed in the same direction.
Mobile Competitive Landscape
In December, Morgan Stanley released its Mobile Internet Report. Buried among the more than 1,000 pages in that report was a slide showing probability-weighted scenarios for mobile operating systems:
In the most probable scenario, «products with the best HTML5 browsers gain share.» It is no wonder then that so many mobile companies are lining up behind HTML5 and pushing mobile browser technology.
Two to many, many to one
In 2006, two mobile operating systems controlled 81 percent of the market. This year there are 10 different smartphone operating systems.
Over that same period of time, mobile browsers have gone from many different proprietary rendering engines to the point where WebKit alone will power browsers in more than 85 percent of the smartphones sold.
From two operating systems to many. From many browsers to one. We have two core mobile technologies headed in opposite directions.