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21 May 12 Disassembling Android Part 2: Who Wields the Blowtorch?

To truly disrupt Android, other OS makers face an uphill battle. It is no longer 2009, when Android stepped into a mobile market hungry for options beyond the iPhone (then only on ATT) and the aging BlackBerry and Windows Mobile ecosystems. The market is now well established and the only two players that currently mean anything are iOS and Android.

For the sake of clarity, let’s look at the other contenders (in order of importance):

  • Windows Phone: On its way to becoming a solid Number 3 behind iOS and Android.
  • BlackBerry 10: Research In Motion’s next BlackBerry operating system and perhaps its last gasp to save the franchise.
  • Mozilla B2G: Open, browser-based OS currently in development from Mozilla and the open source community. 
  • Tizen: Formerly MeeGo. Has the backing of the Linux Foundation and Intel, and it has caught the eyes of several manufacturers looking for an alternative.
  • Linux/Ubuntu: Pure, open Linux-based OS has been kicked about by the open source community, but generally unavailable in devices until 2013 at the earliest.
  • webOS: Open-sourced by Hewlett-Packard, may have a legitimate future if developers embrace browser-based mobile interaction.

Microsoft and Nokia would love nothing more than to see Windows Phone eat Android’s market share. In the short term, that is not going to happen. The best Windows Phone, the Lumia 900, available through ATT, does not measure up well with the best Android phones, either in specifications or user interface. What Windows Phone does have going for it is increasing traction with both carriers and manufacturers tired of dealing with the array of Android devices and the never-ending need to support them. Windows Phone is a known quantity and will continue to rise in market share. It will not reach the levels of Android, but it can shave 5% to 10% of its market share within a couple of years, especially if carriers continue to market and subsidize Windows Phone devices.

The problems for Windows Phone in disrupting Android are the macro-problems that face any OS aiming to usurp the crown. First, the Windows Phone Marketplace is a wasteland of copied and boring apps (with a few exceptional entries). Developer support is critical to the success of a smartphone OS, as developers create the content that drives adoption. The better a developer can fare on a platform, the harder it will work to build a productive ecosystem around it. Windows Phone and BlackBerry do not, at this point, have developer interest equivalent to Android and iOS. With almost 500,000 apps in Google Play (against 70,000 for Windows Phone and BlackBerry), conquering Android is bound to be an uphill battle. 

Manufacturers and carriers may be starting to look at throwing more weight behind Windows Phone. There are a variety of reasons for this. The most important is that Microsoft is willing to pay for visibility, and manufacturers and carriers are happy to take money whether or not Windows Phone actually sells well. 

While Windows Phone appears to be on the rise, Blackberry is still in wait-and-see mode. What will BlackBerry 10 ultimately look like? Will it be sexy enough to not only compete with the current crop of Android phones but remain viable for two or three years? To take market share back from Android, RIM needs to focus as much on what it releases this year as what that platform will look like in 2014. 

Tizen occupies an interesting space in this ecosystem. It has indirect backing from Samsung and could easily add HTC to the list of supporters if manufacturer relations turn sour with Google over its Motorola acquisition. Tizen will continue to be pushed by Intel – but the fact is that there may be little hope for it. It does not have the industry clout to disrupt Android in the short or long term. A wild card: Tizen has been seen running Android apps, a development that could give it traction.

What applies for Tizen also applies for webOS. These open source projects will likely produce nominal results and devices, at best. 

That leaves the two most intriguing candidates – Ubuntu and Mozilla. These are also open source projects, but they have significant developer communities behind them. Canonical has proposed an Ubuntu mobile operating system that has potential to step right into Android’s position. One can imagine that an Ubuntu mobile OS would be very similar to Android (both with a Linux kernel) but not tied to Google. That would please Google’s manufacturer and service partners that would love to be free of Google’s regulations about how a device must behave to be allowed access to Google Play. 

Mozilla’s Boot2Gecko Mockups

Mozilla is in a different category. It is an operating system that is of the browser, by the browser. In that way, it’s similar to Google’s Chrome operating system, though B2G would be specialized toward mobile devices rather than notebooks. This is where HTML5 could truly disrupt Android, as it would run through the mobile Web and not be restricted by… anything. The trick for Mozilla is to create a browser-based operating system that has all of the device capabilities that Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone have with native APIs and hardware acceleration. That is not something the HTML5 environment does currently (at least, not well) and will be the biggest challenge for Mozilla as it develops the OS. Right now, Mozilla’s problems are technical in nature. Get the OS right first and then we can start talking about how it deals with manufacturers, carriers, developers, marketers, advertisers and the rest of the mobile ecosystem. Of all the methods and technologies used by would-be Android competitors, HTML5 has the highest ceiling. The company that pulls together a browser-based mobile operating system could fare very well, especially with developers. 

Taken individually, each would-be Android killer has strengths and flaws that will help and hinder it in trying to unseat Google. The near-term players (Windows Phone and BlackBerry) will have to battle OEMs and manufacturers and curry favor with developers. Everybody else still has to work out development and technical issues before they can gain the kind of traction that Android has created. 

Consequently, for the next two years or so, the mobile world will likely be a race between Apple and Google. 2012 will not be the Year Of Something Other Than Android. 2015 and beyond? Perhaps. 

What do you think has the greatest potential to disrupt Android? Let’s hear your picks in the comments. 

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