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Reality Check: The future of smart phones is open

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Reality Check: The future of smart phones is open

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly Reality Check column. We’ve gathered a group of visionaries and veterans in the mobile industry to give their insights into the marketplace.
The future of smartphones is coming, and it is wide open … as in open source.
The signs are clear that mobile app developers, and by default, designers of smart phones, are marching inexorably toward an open source world. Consider these recent developments:
–Earlier this month a report by VisionMobile made headlines by pointing out that devices powered by Google Inc.’s Android operating system outsold Apple Inc.’s iPhone in Q1 of 2010, and that Android has become the preferred platform for mobile app developers. But VisionMobile isn’t the only one to notice this trend.
–A ComScore report showed that in the period ending May 2010, the Android OS had gained the most market share, while iPhone and Research In Motion Ltd.’s Blackberry slipped.
–Adding fuel to the media fire was venture capitalist Nic Brisbourne who blogged that he believed, over time, Android devices will win the market share battle, pulling even more developers in that direction.
–TechCrunch highlighted the VisionMobile finding that Android and iPhone developers are most often to be the leaders of open source communities as well.
–And Nokia Corp. declared MeeGo as the de facto OS for its future smart phones.
But as we venture into this new world of open smart phones, there are a number of technical and marketplace issues that need to be resolved.
Containing fragmentation
Android has rapidly risen to the top, and with that has come a proliferation of Android devices coming to market with heavily customized software. This phenomena has resulted in developers becoming concerned about platform fragmentation and what the impact of fragmentation could have on interoperability since applications developed for one device might not work properly on others.
Market forces, however, are keeping such fragmentation in check. For example, Google requires that hardware vendors that want to ship Android Market on their devices must conform to its Android compatibility definition. The compatibility definition has to be licensed from Google and it specifies, for example, that all Android devices must have a touch screen, a camera, a GPS antenna, a Bluetooth antenna and other features. Furthermore, hardware vendors are encouraged to adhere to a default code base so that the applications running on their devices remain compatible. The phones also must pass CTS (compliancy test suite provided by Google), ensuring that all functionality needed by application developers is embedded in the device in the proper way.
These requirements are just one example of how a marketplace self-regulates in order to keep everyone marching forward to the same drum beat. This combination of guidelines, restrictions and market incentives effectively guarantees that all Android devices designed to run third-party applications are built essentially to the same standards, which offers numerous benefits to hardware manufacturers, mobile app developers and, ultimately, end users.
Manufacturers of components for smart phones appreciate the open source trend because they more efficiently and effectively support hardware developers with drivers and software. For developers, an open source platform ensures customer satisfaction and guarantees that applications are running on compatible phones without any problems. And for end users, the result is that all Android devices offer a similar input schema and user experience – which is core to Google’s vision when it developed Android.
The MeeGo effect
Another variable in the open source equation is MeeGo, which is essentially the mashup of Intel Corp.’s Moblin OS, Nokia’s Qt application framework, plus Maemo Linux. Although MeeGo is being fostered by Nokia and Intel, it is a Linux-based mobile OS and is intended to be an open OS. Because it is the future OS for Nokia smart phones and is supported by carriers such as Orange, which declared its support already during the Mobile World Congress 2010 event, MeeGo has the power to quickly become a market force because of the sheer volume of Nokia devices available now and in the future.
MeeGo also is a unique OS that is capable of addressing different mobile devices – including smart phones, tablets and networks – with same software platform, much like Apple has done with its iPhone, iPod and iPad. This type of versatile and flexible OS further decreases the cost of the OS development for OEMs addressing multiple segments and can increase the market for the application developers able to create a single application running on multiple type of devices.
Trending toward open source
VisionMobile’s recent report “Developer Economics 2010 and Beyond” unleashed the media frenzy about Android capturing the lead in the platform battle. This free report (which I encourage you to download and read in its entirety) is the result of VisionMobile interviewing more than 400 developers writing for the eight major mobile OS platforms. Beyond the high-level facts and figures that were widely reported, there were some interesting findings that the media did not seize upon:
–Learning curve and speed to develop apps impacts developer preference. The Symbian platform takes on average 15 months or more to learn, while the time is less than six months for Android the average reported time is less than six months. Symbian also is more difficult and time consuming to program than iOS (iPhone), Android or Sun Microsystem Inc.’s Java ME, with a Symbian developer needing to write almost three times more code than an Android developer, and twice as much code as an iPhone developer.
–Android debugs quicker. VisionMobile’s benchmarking shows that Android has the fastest debugging process, compared with iPhone, Symbian and Java ME. Debugging in Symbian takes up more than twice the time it takes on Android.
–Disconnect between mindshare and addressable Mmarket. The Symbian operating system is deployed in around 390 million handsets, as of Q2 2010, and claims over 6,000 apps, according to VisionMobile, while Apple’s iPhone has seen 30 times more applications for just 60 million units in this same period.
Empirical evidence and market research have led to the same conclusion: Developers are migrating away from the incumbent, proprietary OS’s like Java ME and BREW and throwing their support behind open OS platforms. Various technical and market incentives are pushing hardware device makers in the same direction. The future of smart phones is indeed “open.”
Piotr Frasunkiewicz is co-founder of Aava Mobile, which is a company building an open-source mobile handset platform for the OEM/ODM market. Previously, Frasunkiewicz worked at Flextronics ODM, Siemens AG and Siemens Poland. He can be reached at piotr.frasunkiewicz@aavamobile.com.

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