Could A Totally New Smartphone OS Ever Survive?
About a week ago, some smartphone news dropped that was either earth-shattering or completely irrelevant, depending on your point of view. It’s my bet that most of our readers fall into the latter camp, as most of our coverage is devoted to the top three platforms in the mobile world. In fact, we didn’t even run a story on this piece of news, so tangential was it to the modern mobile landscape.
The news in question: the MeeGo platform isn’t quite as dead as the world thought it was. Specifically, a team of ex-Nokia employees has leapt from the wobbly deck of the beleaguered phone giant and found a new home in Finnish startup Jolla. The group’s mission: to build and sell new MeeGo-based phones.
It’s heartening, particularly for a once-hopeful webOS champion, to see a group of passionate people split off from a company in the midst of a massive sea change, with the intention of doing justice to the work they started. Sure, I’m an old softie, but go ahead – just try not being even a little moved by the Jolla mission statement:
Nokia created something wonderful – the world’s best smartphone product. It deserves to be continued, and we will do that together with all the bright and gifted people contributing to the MeeGo success story … The Jolla team consists of a substantial number of MeeGo’s core engineers and directors, and is aggressively hiring the top MeeGo talent to contribute to the next generation smartphone production.
Not enough for you? How about these epic mugs?
But seriously, you have to admire the sheer gall. The boldness of a move like this. Nokia released one product running MeeGo -the N9– and while everyone agreed that the Linux-based software was beautiful, with innovative ideas and a user experience unlike anything else, everyone also knew it was a walking ghost. Nokia had spent too long resting on its Symbian-based laurels. Backed into a corner, it made the decision to partner with fellow underdog Microsoft on a Windows Phone-based future, rather than throw its weight behind the new, untested, essentially app-less MeeGo.
That, too, was a bold move … and we have yet to see how it will work out for Nokia. But the case for WP7 was a compelling one; Microsoft’s platform, though never really a blockbuster, was at least an up-and-coming contender. It had some buzz, some momentum. At the time these decisions were being made, MeeGo was too young to boast any of that. It had some high-profile backing in Intel, Nokia, AMD, and the like … but outside of tech circles, few knew it existed. That still holds true today.
That’s why the recent news out of Jolla -including today’s report that it’s already partnered with Chinese retailer D.Phone to distribute its forthcoming hardware- is so interesting. These people are taking a platform with very little mind share and almost no app ecosystem and pledging to sell it as “the world’s best smartphone product.”
There’s a reason that kind of boldness is so exciting. This is an industry exploding with new features and new ideas, but one whose “wild-west frontier” atmosphere is quickly evaporating. Just a few years ago, the mobile space was an epic battleground: Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, webOS, Android, and iOS all fought fiercely- some for attention, but others for their very survival. With the occasional exception, it was an open question who would ultimately come out on top. That’s not the case anymore. Today, we live in a Windows Phone, Android, and iOS world. The others have either died off, or are well on their way to doing so.
So, for a new contender like Jolla to emerge from the ashes of Nokia’s “burning platform,” dust off a discarded gem like MeeGo, and say, “we’re gonna make a go of it” is the stuff of high drama. And the Jolla team is at the very beginning stages of its push; the company doesn’t even have a website yet. We get to watch its entire effort from start to finish. That’s probably as exciting as it gets for we perpetual followers of the underdog. But it’s important to overcome the initial, instinctive surge of hopeful adrenaline so we can ask a crucial, if sobering, question: in this climate, can any new smartphone OS hope to survive?
The answer is yes. But that comes with a lot of qualifiers.
Not Exactly “New”
A new OS, written from the ground up, requires millions of lines of code. According to The Verge, it took the people at Palm three years, from mid-2006 to mid-2009, to build webOS … and then another year to put out a version that most everyone felt happy with. No modern OEM has that kind of time, and even if it did, what would be the point in diverting all the money and resources to make it happen? Every manufacturer of note already owns its own platform, or it uses Android for essentially free. So, until the next computing revolution, at least, we’re not likely to see a “totally new” smartphone OS emerge. The closest thing to a new platform today, Tizen, isn’t new at all; it’s based largely on MeeGo.
So a new, successful platform will be one built on an existing core, but with an interface layer, support structure, and ecosystem so alien that it will seem new.
You knew this was coming. The modern smartphone is defined by its ability to run third-party applications. To stand a chance at not dying right out of the gate, a new platform will need to run at least a handful of popular apps. To become and stay competitive, the platform will need an app ecosystem of its own. If you dispute this, try using a new smartphone as your daily driver without downloading a single app. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not fun.
The reason it’s hard for new platforms to offer a compelling app catalog is simple: developing apps takes a lot of work. Cross-platform development kits are becoming more popular, but they’re not ubiquitous: each smartphone OS still uses its own set of tools, frameworks, and languages. Wooing developers to build for your platform is difficult when they’re already making money on existing, proven ecosystems like iOS and Android. Microsoft had such a hard time convincing developers to build applications for Windows Phone that it even paid some of them to build apps. HP offered similar incentives for webOS devs after buying Palm. There are entire corporate departments, teams of people with “developer relations” in their titles, whose only job is keeping developers happy. Apps are crucial.
Microsoft is perhaps one of the only companies in the world with enough capital and influence to be able to brute-force its way into relevance in this capacity. Its successful quest to fill the Windows Phone Marketplace with popular titles is perhaps the last time we’ll see something like that happen again. Indeed, RIM was so frustrated in its attempts to garner developer attention for its PlayBook tablet that it gave it the ability to run Android apps. Today, even some iOS titles can run on the device.
That’s unless you’re talking about a content provider like Amazon, of course; then, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Build your own app store, for all we care; you’ve got the money! But … well, frankly, forked version of Android aren’t all that exciting, are they?
Anyway. Until we ascend to the next plane of smartphone development, where apps will be rendered irrelevant by new, ultra-light web pages or some such magic, new smartphone platforms will need to offer support for existing apps, like titles written for Android. The legal ramifications going forward aren’t clear, as Google would certainly start to chafe at the competition. There’s just no other way forward, though; the leading platforms already have such a head-start on apps that it would be impossible for anyone else to catch up at this point.
Be Special Or Be Dead
That begs the uncomfortable question: if all this work needs to be done to run existing Android apps, with no guarantee of compatibility or support, why wouldn’t users simply buy an Android phone? What possible reason would they have for investing in this new OS?
A brand-new platform would have to offer something truly unique. Not just unique, but compelling. So compelling that it would be worth sacrificing some app functionality. That can mean almost anything, from a user interface with dead-simple ease-of-use, to a user experience so customizable that you can tune ringtones by the hertz and resize windows by the pixel. Maybe there’s some hardware integration that’s really eye-catching, like NFC-enabled remote speaker activation or file transfers that we saw on the N9. Maybe there’s a unique new sensor package that makes the core functionality so superior that people won’t care that they have to log in to a mobile site to update their status.
Whatever it is, this kind of eye-catching feature or set of features needs to be amazing, or it won’t be enough. webOS couldn’t survive despite its portfolio of compelling features, some of which have yet to be duplicated elsewhere. Windows Phone is still struggling to gain market share, despite the incredibly high satisfaction rate of the Lumia 900.
It would take a combination of talent, innovation, intrepidity, and extreme dedication to drive a “new” smartphone platform to any level of success. That’s true for any new product in an established market, but the mobile world is different. Yes, it’s incredibly competitive- but its relative stability is newfound and uneasy. Its consumers are demanding and endlessly fickle, always looking for what’s new and cool. Despite the prevailing opinion, I think there’s still an opportunity for a fourth key player to emerge from nowhere and carve out a niche.
Whether that fourth player is the combined power of Jolla and MeeGo is anyone’s guess; because of their roots, I hope it is. Either way, it’s sure going to be exciting to see what happens.
webOS development info source: The Verge