The lives and deaths of mobile platforms

When Stephen Elop said that Nokia and Microsoft sought to create a “three horse race” he implied that there were only two viable mobile ecosystems today. With that statement he sought to deprecate or declare “end of life” two platforms: Symbian and MeeGo, implying that Nokia’s efforts at being the third way failed.

However, he also implicitly declared irrelevant a larger set of market participants. In fact, the market is awash with platforms. Far more than the three or five that Stephen considered.

To illustrate I built the following chart showing the history of all major mobile platforms. The are ranked by launch date (earliest at the bottom). A vertical line marks the present. End dates are approximate and based on declarations of end of life rather than end of usage.

There have been 16 total mobile platforms[1], 10 of which are still (or soon will be) on the market. Of the six that were terminated, three had replacements built by the same orchestrating company (Windows Mobile begat Windows Phone; Maemo begat MeeGo, and PalmOS eventually led to WebOS.) Only three reached end of life with no known descendant (iMode, MeeGo[2] and Symbian).

Operating systems that were launched in the 1990s or early 2000s have mostly been withdrawn/replaced with the exception of Java and BREW.  “Modern” operating systems all emerged after 2007 (following iOS). A total of eight such new OSs were introduced in four years[3].

What I find noteworthy is that there is an implied peculiar fatalism about the market when only two platforms are considered viable, neither of which are more than 3 years old. While visiting the Mobile World Congress, I sensed this jumping to conclusions about platforms was eerily similar to that of a few years ago when new entrants like Apple and Google were declared dead on arrival.

I can only conclude that there is a great deal of groupthink going on in the industry. A perfect setting for a disruptive entrant to change everything, all over again.


  1. I excluded some platforms like Motorola’s Linux, SavaJe and perhaps some others (Openmoko, Qtopia) which did not gain significant traction. I also excluded any embedded OSs which did not have native APIs.
  2. The end of MeeGo is speculative. Intel is still defending it and may continue developing it.
  3. Android variants like Tapas could be considered new platforms, but I maintain them as part of one OS for the time being.
  • Can iMode be declared dead already?
    As far as I know iMode Handsets are still being developed and sold by DoCoMo and Japanese Handset Makers in Japan.

  • excellent as usual, its actually quite interesting as well looking at the graph from iOS on upward and noticing the the escalating levels of influence of mobile platforms and how they decrease logarithmically based on their infancy. Good stuff.

  • MattF

    It's groupthink, but it's not only groupthink– business folklore says that there's really only room for two (alpha and beta) major brands in any given market, and that assumes the market is healthy. Folklore also says that a third brand is iffy at best.

  • Rob Scott

    Yes, it is too early to write out any OS. Blackberry is still growing nicely. HP WebOS has great potential, if only because HP has money to push the OS. Windows Phone is going to be a player because Microsoft is going to throw billions until it succeeds. iOS will continue to thrive. And Android is doing great. That is five OS'es already.

    There is however no hope for Bada, Brew, Limo, Java Micro Edition and Meego. These OS'es will fail.
    Android and iOS will lead with +/-60% share. HP WebOS, QNX and Microsoft Windows Phone will fight over the remaining 40% with probably equal share between them.

    The big story at least for me is that Android will never enjoy the same domination as Windows enjoyed in PC'e, and that is great!

    Apple through iOS will continue to print money and that is wonderful because they deserve every cent.

    • O.C.

      "Apple through iOS will continue to print money and that is wonderful because they deserve every cent. "

      Applying for a job opportunity at Apple anytime soon Rob? Because those lines would work great!!

      • Hamranhansenhansen

        I don't see how it is controversial in the slightest to say Apple earned their money over the past 4 years.

    • poke

      I wouldn't rule out Bada. Do you really think Samsung wants to be just another Android vendor? Android was a stopgap for them.

      • gctwnl

        I agree, most Android vendors grabbed the Android lifebelt when they were hit by the iOS tsunami because they did not have anything else to fight (for their lives) with. But in the longer run, it seems to me that you cannot count out HP/WebOS, Samsung/Bada because if they have the most basic set of apps, they will be acceptable for many. And WinPhone7 may for instance be successful in the enterprise if Microsoft integrates it strongly with the ActiveDirectory/Exchange/SharePoint monopoly.

        HP, Samsung and Microsoft are rich enough to buy their app development and still have a fighting chance.

        How easy is it to develop for Bada btw?

      • Sander van der Wal

        I don't think that developers can be bougth that easily. Not because developers won't accept the cash, but because everybody will want to be a developer, which makes the program unaffordable.

        Bada and WebOS will attract developers if they attract lots of people willing to buy apps. And that fact needs to be advertised widely by Samsung and HP.

        Bada is supposedly easy to program for, but they have the problem of using a non standard C++. That makes it hard to reuse existing code without massive rewriting.

      • Personally, I've ruled out a lot of the competitors other than Android, WebOS and WinPhone7 because the creators don't have experience in maintaining a platform. In my eyes, Android has benefitted from a supply side push (meaning that most of it's market share was gained from having lots of phones in stores and not from people choosing Android). In the long term, the success of Android is still up in the air. The future is going to be in Native Apps and the platforms that facilitate this market the best are going to win.

    • x-pilot

      No hope for JME? Meh… Take a look on Horace's chart here:… 75% of devices on market are not smartphones, so take a guess which platform do they support on top of their OS? 😉

  • lrd

    Apple's advantage: One OS over 3 mobile devices. Could soon be four.

    All others: fragmented hit or miss approach.

    • Marc in Chicago

      Not true: WebOS is unified across tablets and phones. Plus, Android may yet unify tablet and phone OS's—just like Apple took a few months before unifying the iPad and iPhone versions of iOS.

      • Hamranhansenhansen

        Not true: WebOS is only available on phones. If HP releases the tablet they demoed, we'll see what it is running and how that goes.

        The original poster is actually understating Apple's advantage. The bottom 3/4 of iOS and Mac OS is the same OS X core operating system, so Apple actually has one OS across iPhone, iPod, iPad, AppleTV, and the Mac. When they improve OS X, for example by improving the typography engine or the graphics engine or the Web rendering engine, those improvements show up on all the devices. They just have one OS with the ability to present 3 distinct user/application interfaces as appropriate for touch, mouse, and remote. Whether you are using a Mac or iPad, you're running the xnu kernel and CoreGraphics, CoreAudio, etc.

      • kyler

        Plus, Apple is taking advantage of the commonality on the components basis, most notably the flash memory among those i-products, which seems to be leading to something like market squeeze. I think production/component procurement strategies are big part of the equation.

      • That's also a disadvantage in some respects as what is suitable on the desktop might not be suitable on a mobile device and vice versa.

        So far they've had a good cross over by keeping to high end mobile devices which are almost desktop level in terms of performance but they've possibly narrowed their field since it's unlikely to scale down to low end devices and on the desktop, if they continue to always have an eye on mobile devices, they may limit the possibilities of what they can do on a desktop with a lot more processing power.

    • Marc in Chicago

      Also, Windows Phone aims to avoid fragmentation by setting relatively high minimum hardware requirements. (We'll see if those minimums hold when Mokia comes out with medium- to low-end phones.)

      • WaltFrench

        I don't see much of an app library or user base to fragment. At this stage, Nokia could do whatever it thought was best for it. If *I* were Microsoft, I would use this as stage 1 of a complete sale/spinout of the phone group that has been a black eye. Ballmer might even keep his job.

    • FalKirk

      Agreed. The iPod Touch is Apple's stealth iOS device. During the holiday quarter – one quarter mind you – Apple made over 2 billion dollars in revenue from the iPod Touch alone. Yet, so far as I know, IDC and the others don't even COUNT the iPod Touch. How could they? They don't even have a name for its category or classification.

      The other thing, of course, is Apple TV. It's iOS capable. We could be seeing Apps on our TVs as early as this summer. (Or we could not. Just speculation.)

    • davel

      from what i have read google is not unifying android 3 ( tablets ) and android 2 ( phones )

      perhaps in the future, but not now.

      i wonder what this says about the two companies approach to software? also as we keep talking about, unification of platform.

  • lrd

    Remember Android for phones does not equal Honeycomb ( forked OS) for Tablets.

  • Would the graphic change significantly if we added tablets to the definition of "mobile ecosystem?" They would seem to create a (higher) ecosystem level, leaving the "pure phone" OSes to eventually sink to the bottom. Thus, the bars themselves become "strata."

  • Sander van der Wal

    Smartphones have crossed the chasm.

    The difference is that smartphones are now being adopted by the early majority. By the time a new platform is ready the existing succesful ones will have such a huge userbase compared to the new entry and the existing losers that nobody is even going to make the effort.

  • Tpolo

    Should also propritary platforms be included or explicitly excluded? Also some of them have some option for external innovation, e.g. through web kits.

  • kevin

    In the graphic above, you are looking at mobile platform through the lens of the OS. But OS is just one part of the product that a user buys. Other platforms can be built above or below the OS. For example, a "platform" like Facebook with its own app layer can be built above the OS, in other words, it runs on multiple OSes and devices, and if it becomes the major influencing factor in a user's purchase, it makes the OS and device irrelevant. Or an operator like Vodafone/Verizon sells a one-price cellular package usable across many countries with a single web-based content store, it can also render the OS and device irrelevant.

    At the other end, a device maker can make a device that is sold with and performs similarly with any one of multiple OSes – let's say, Dell uses the same quality of hardware for devices using Android, WP7, and Meego, so Dell could succeed regardless of which OS succeeds. If that's too hard to believe, imagine the scenario where Dell sells IT packages encompassing PCs, phones, servers and software and integration services to corporations.

    The winning OSes will be those that can appeal directly to consumers, as well as navigate the relationships with all these other potential influencers in the ecosystem, so that they won't get commoditized or disintermediated.

    • To put it simply, a platform succeeds by balancing the needs of all the participants.

    • Iosweeky

      I agree that something like facebook could become a very strong mobile platform (built on top of another preexisting OS) – it already has thousands of native apps and half a billion users, and is the most sucessful implementation of social network stickiness.

      I see a lot of iOS users who spend 90% of their device use time with the facebook app.

  • The interesting exercise here would be to look at three things:

    1. The ratio device revenue/device for each OS annually
    2. the ratio of all revenue ( apps + handset + licensing ) / # of handsets annually
    3. Profit / per os annually

  • poke

    I honestly wouldn't rule out anyone yet. Android has shown that having a compelling platform and an ecosystem aren't necessary for adoption (which isn't to say Android can't develop as a compelling platform and ecosystem, just that this hasn't been a major factor in driving adoption). Any OS that can match the iPhone's functionality and run on modern hardware has a chance. What would be interesting is if somebody like Amazon, who owns a compelling ecosystem, created an OS for mobile devices (or forked Android). They could sell an OS that would also have access to music, movies, ebooks, an app store, etc. They could partner with hardware manufacturers to create a compelling integrated experience that adds value over Android.

    • zato

      And then what would happen to Amazon?
      Someone would buy Amazon.
      Who? Google. (If the DOJ wouldn't object)
      Why did Apple change the rules for publishers?
      Is it really about Amazon?

    • Are you sure the Kindle shouldn't be considered a mobile OS already?

  • Omar

    The top contending mobile OS's will most likely be IOS, Android, webOS, and Qnx, all others will probably fall to the wayside as fillers for smaller portions of the market. Apple will rule the roost with OSX across it's varied hardware forcing everyone else to follow a similar unified path with software.

    I encourage the proliferation of the different players, of course Microsoft will continue to spend billions to force feed the adoption of windows phone 7 onto the market. But it's not like they don't have unlimited cash revenues to make this a reality. I am really interested in WebOS for the mobile space, and would love to see it succeed in the tablet market over Android.

    I hope HP gives the palm developers it acquired the creative freedom it needs to make WebOS a strong contender for the mobile industry, it's a beautiful and elegant OS that is only second to IOS.

    • Apple often gets criticized for it's app store policies, but there is only so much power that you can give developers. It's not that most developers don't care about making the platform experience better, but the few who don't can really hurt the experience.

      A case in point is push notifications. I have noticed more and more developers using push notifications for trivial alerts and it is starting to piss me off. Another is designing UIs that get you to tap Ads on accident. Facebook offers even better examples since they have a more open API. They have had to restrict developers who try to take over a users newsfeed.

  • Horace, you're missing Openmoko.

  • Aren't you missing MK which could be the #4 ranked mobile OS before long?

  • lpotter

    You forgot about Qtopia, which was alive from 2003 on the Sharp Zaurus, and the Trolltech Greenphone!

  • Horace overlay current sales/ user numbers and the graph really has little current meaning except for historical value. In Australia Rim still control this 'enterprise level' eco system but we predict will be soon be eclipsed by IOS and perhaps down the track along with webOS. Android aren't yet an viable option, however the rise of MDM platforms eg; Mobileiron… could change that!

  • Great analysis. However, I think one needs to differentiate between a tech platform (e.g. BREW or Java) and a mobile ecosystem. The ability for app / content publishers to distribute their products easily to all iOS and Android users across all carriers is a very big differentiate from BREW and Java, for which a publisher has to negotiate a biz dev deal w/ each carrier. This ease of publishing results in an enormous inventory of content and services being created for the leading ecosystems, iOS and Android, that is not available for a pure tech platform (BREW or Java) or ecosystems that haven't taken off (Blackberry). It's this content that consumers are really purchasing, not the OS. So, from this perspective, there are two ecosystems way out in front of the pack

  • KenC

    What it took for a disruption was a new interface. It's exactly as Steve Jobs pointed out in 2007, when he showed the slide with previous interface revolutions starting with the mouse.

    If there is to be a disruption to the current groupthink, it'll take a new interface. Voice seems obvious, but we've been told that voice was going to control our computers for years by Bill Gates. If we're going to have a voice ui revolution, shouldn't we first see it in computers, before adapting it for the cellphone? Or will it be the other way around?

    I know it seems awfully early to declare iOS and Android two of the winners, but we're human. It's in our nature to make quick decisions. Some of us saw the future in 2007 when Steve Jobs gave his presentation and knew it, and then there were those who said it wouldn't work.


      All you need are 90 32-core processors and 16 terabytes of data!

      The 2007 Keynote Presentation was awesome. To me, I always thought that Gates was too obsessed with 3D. Our brains actually don't process real 3D that well. If it did, XYZ graphs would be more prevalent. The way I look at it, GUI revolutionized computers for sight. Touch revolutionized computers for tactile feel. Voice will come one day, but there are lots of obstacles. Something as simple as a noisy environment can throw it off by a lot. People also don't want to have to push a button to speak (something that Apple learned with the last evolution of the Shuffle).

      So the big question is where to look for the next evolution in UI? I think you have to look at markets serving hyper-sensitive people. Touch interfaces were popular for years before the iPhone came out to teach autistic children. You search for assistive technology if you want more info. Here's a link to get you started.

      • Watson doesn't use voice recognition.

        As the question is asked to the live contestants, it is also submitted to Watson simultaneously as a plain-text prompt. Watson also has some delay just by magnitude of sheer calculations that it has to make in addition to the Jeopardy buzzer rule, so adding modern day still only 95% accurate voice recognition on top of that, would probably make the project even less interesting.

        It was an experiment in natural language and question analysis, not in voice recognition.

      • Thanks for pointing that out.

      • unhinged

        Minor quibble: our brains actually _do_ process real 3D quite well. It's the faux-3D that is intimated on a 2D surface that gives us grief.

        I would also argue that 3D graphs aren't widely used because it's (a) hard to find a meaningful third dimension to most data and (b) it takes some effort to understand and compare small differences in a purely visual 3D representation (heck, even in a 2D representation – for example, Horace's recent graph showing units sold x ASP was difficult for me to analyse because my poor brain couldn't rotate the blocks of colour to determine the difference between the tall but narrow block vs the short but wide blocks). We use more than sight to compare 3D objects in the "real" world; while sight can usually give us a good approximation we then use our other senses to provide additional data that confirms or corrects our initial judgement.

    • lb51

      I am not sure if voice is or will be the new interface. More people text message than place calls. And, most people are self conscious about how they sound; similar to how people are self conscious how they appear in video or photographs. I believe most people are relatively shy and reserved. I think?

      • I think more people text because they feel it saves them time. You aren't dependent on a person answering the phone and the other person can respond when they feel like it. Like Facebook and Twitter, it leverages asynchronous communication.

        But I do think voice will have role somewhere. If you watch the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs interview at AllThingsD, Gates was very accurate in his assessment that natural input was going to be the future. Jobs just had a better idea of how to implement it.

      • GeorgeS

        "More people text message than place calls."

        Any data to back that up? I suspect that it depends a great deal on age, gender, business, etc. I know dozens of people who use push-to-talk, but never text, but that means zip. Also, remember that this discussion is worldwide. How many people in India or China text, rather than use voice?

        "I believe most people are relatively shy and reserved. "

        That doesn't agree with psychological research, which shows that a great majority of people are extroverts.

        It sounds a lot like you're projecting your own behavior, etc, onto large numbers of other people.

    • Iosweeky

      Eyeball tracking will be the sleeper hit of 2012 devices.

  • Of the 8 existing platforms around when iOS was released – 5 are now gone or going.

    8 platforms released in the 10 years pre iOS, 7 in the 4 years since.

    This ain't your granddaddies OS battle.

  • chandra2

    I saw the title of this article… "Mobile OSS and Then There were 10", my first thought was 'Wow, that sounds very similar to what Horace wrote about recently'. 🙂
    It turns out it is nothing more than a pointer to your article but it shows up in Yahoo stock pages under Apple.
    At least, they are giving Horace the credit and Horace can feel a bit good that he got a pointer from a major news outlet but there is something odd about this. Many of these 'tech journalists' at major news outlets are becoming nothing more than parasites of the great original analysis done by the likes of Horace.. That Fortune/CNN article could have been written by any of us who follow Horace!! May be Fortune has similar 'rules' like AOL on how to generate articles in volume!!

  • Vern

    Apple Newton pre dates Palm !

  • weren't the next bets on voice interfaces meant to be the nail-in-coffin clincher? the point is – we're assuming equilibrium. what if there isn't.

  • Good post.

    The top 2/3 platforms will likely vary by country. The US is quite a weird market in many ways & it would be wrong to extrapolate to the larger markets like Europe & China.

    In particular, Apple’s reach into the 80% of mobile users who get unlocked unsubsidised phones and separate prepay top-up accounts is minimal.

    • What if Android was nothing more than a bridge technology? A stepping stone between a dumb phone and a well managed platform? People's opinions are likely to differ depending on whether they think Web Apps or Native Apps are the future.

      Fred Wilson on Bridge Technologies

      • chandra2

        Android is not a bridge technology in the sense a VC would call it. It may be a bridge to pull up the dumb phone to a semi-smart phone, but it is also a full fledged smart phone OS. In that sense, it covers the entire spectrum which iOS does not.

  • Maemo's corporate death looks a little early on that graph but it's ultimate death looks very premature. There's quite a community effort ongoing with Maemo and I'd expect another few releases to come from the community rather than Nokia.

    • asymco

      I made a note of this in a footnote.

      • Your footnote mentions MeeGo, not Maemo. They're not the same.

        When Nokia said the future was MeeGo, Maemo was picked up by the community, improved and developed. The Maemo community is gearing up for their first release outside of Nokia. It's now got it's own release process. Think of it as CentOS Linux to Redhat's Linux.

        Maemo 5, PR1.4 may well be a community release, not a Nokia one.

  • techu

    i still say QNX RtP 6.1.0 on the iPAQ in 2001 was cool 😀

    when all said and done this is essentially what you get at the core with RIM and their fancy GUI's
    and that'd good, dont be distracted by the GUI you see and underestimate its power..
    many more…

  • But isn't the point that the reference was made to 'ecosystems' and not just the operating system of the phone? So associated app stores

  • davel

    I caught a link to this from fortune which wrote a blog posting based on your chart.,

    I think you bring up a good point. Apple was able to enter and disrupt the market because of the lemming approach to the market.

    Can someone else make an impact? I think so. It won't be easy. They would have to fight the big dogs Apple and Google and then the second tier of HP/Microsoft. All formidable competitors.

    As we know for the smartphone market you now need an ecosystem of software. How do you break through the entrenched powers? IT would be difficult but not impossible. Apple would have to stumble badly as will the other players. Otherwise I think the moat is too wide.

    As a side note, I think Androids rapid rise was due in no small measure to the software application infrastructure they were able to bring to the table – Maps/Search/uTube/etc.

    • asymco

      I'd remind everyone that the vast majority of current iOS and Android users are *on their first smartphone*. We don't even know how replacement behavior works because the ecosystems are younger than the lifetimes of the first devices.

  • Nalini Kumar Muppala

    "The carriers still want a third ecosystem and the carriers want an open ecosystem, and that's the thing that drives our motivation." – Paul Otellini, CEO, Intel.

    From PC Pro "Intel CEO: Nokia should have gone with Android"

    Are iOS and Android the only two that matter in Nokia+Microsoft decision?

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  • QNX has been around for longer than any of those, since 1982. Other than that flagrant mistake, it's a nice comparison…

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  • I would have to disagree with you. Many of the mobile platforms still exist. Maybe it varies from country to country. I would suggest that proper research be done and more facts be added to this blog post to enhance its value. Thanks for the little information!

    • asymco

      Oh, do pay attention. As I wrote in the post: "End dates are approximate and based on declarations of end of life rather than end of usage".

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  • Nancy

    You can just choose the right mobile app from our selection. Here, there are different category at various themes tags compare to others. Buy it and try

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