Mobile platforms developers need new markets

Optimists are arguing that, should Google's Motorola purchase open up cracks in the Android base, the beneficiaries could be the second rung mobile platforms, notably those of Microsoft, RIM, HP and Intel MeeGo.
The case for WP7 has some credibility, given that broad OEM support does exist, even if most partners currently treat the OS as a second string. But developers and consumers still flock together, and any weakening of Android will just strengthen the powerful - namely Apple -, rather than creating a sudden conversion to minor platforms.
Samsung Bada could be a limited exception, given the company's market presence and ability to drive a technology, but the same is not true of QNX, WebOS or MeeGo. All these are marginal and unproven players with many technical strengths, but they need to find themselves a new niche, not hope to pick up smartphone fallout from Android.
RIM's problem is different from those of the other contenders because it has a huge smartphone base to defend, and needs to accomplish the difficult task of converting it to an untried new OS at the same time as losing market share. That is a trick that Palm and arguably Nokia, with open source Symbian, failed to pull off (though Nokia is having another go with WP7).
The other players in this pack, WebOS and MeeGo, are controlled by vendors which have repeatedly failed to gain significant mobile presence, despite huge power in PCs. They regard tablets and other emerging form factors like cloud books as the way to reassert their influence and reduce the influence of handset specialists and software houses over the mobile web agenda.
Targeting cloud devices makes sense, although Google has got there first with Chrome OS. But at least this is a new segment where the market is wide open and where Apple is not currently playing. The dilemma is whether to attack the new world with a new software platform, optimized for the task but untried, or whether to adapt a more established system for the job.
The latter approach is being taken by Huawei, with its highly cloud-oriented Android device strategy, though ironically not by Google, which has clearly separate roles for Android and Chrome OS. The former is being pursued by WebOS, MeeGo and to some extent QNX. All these are fatter than Google's browser-as-OS, which has a very minimalist Linux kernel, but are slim, power efficient platforms designed to be embedded in a huge range of always-connected devices with browser-based UIs.
Cars and other OS targets
This is where these platforms must seek their power base, not by challenging Android and iOS. The market has already been distracted from the true potential of the platforms by their appearance on conventional, “fat client” tablets like the PlayBook and HP's failed TouchPad. Neither of these set the world alight because each lacks the strong apps support of the main mobile operating systems. But as HP (and Intel with MeeGo) make clear, the tablets are mainly a way to showcase the new offering on a currently available form factor. The real potential lies elsewhere, in thin client cloud books, browser appliances, home equipment, planes and cars (remember QNX's original role as an OS mainly for the auto sector).
HP says it is already in talks with vendors of kitchen appliances and cars to make WebOS a standard for bringing intelligent web connectivity to every device. There is work to be done – WebOS was devised for complex smartphones and will require significant change and slimming-down to be suitable for a huge range of embedded devices. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, HP is already on that road, knowing from Microsoft's history that having the OS in every client device boosts the power of back end platforms.
HP will be up against embedded Windows too, as manufacturers look to add a touchscreen user interface and browser to their products to replace physical controls and add intelligence. Some companies are already looking to create common applications and stores that span not only the phone, PC and TV, but also the car and the refrigerator.
Carmakers have led this embedded browser wave, but are being joined by firms like Whirlpool, which is looking at connected kitchen appliances, and airline entertainment systems maker Panasonic Avionics. The importance of the auto sector in defining the new generation of the ubiquitous browser is often overlooked in the fascination with consumer devices, but in this world, there are many opportunities for new platforms – and the incumbent is Windows, which has always had a fractious relationship with carmakers, rather than Apple or Google.
MeeGo has the head start, as it was adopted at an early stage by the Genivi Alliance, the automotive and consumer electronics industry association driving standards for open source in-car infotainment (IVI) systems. Other Linux-based offerings such as MontaVista, Canonical Ubuntu and Intel's Wind River are also now Genivi compliant, but many believe MeeGo is gaining the biggest traction. The auto industry is increasingly aggressive in driving the “wireless car,” with Ford looking to embed connectivity in every vehicle so deeply that the car in effect becomes a node on a giant, dynamic mesh network, helping avoid accidents and congestion and create new applications for drivers and passengers.
This is an area where RIM needs to be proactive, given the auto industry roots of QNX. According to QNX product marketing manager Andy Gryc, the software is currently in about 22 million vehicles, supporting infotainment systems and hands-free calling and navigation. As the overlap between the auto and consumer devices sectors extends, QNX is sitting in the intersection, he argues, and can take advantage of initiatives like the recently formed Car Connectivity Consortium, whose founders include Nokia, Samsung, LG, Panasonic, General Motors, Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen.
And while the PlayBook may not be selling in huge numbers, its development will enhance the in-car systems, says Gryc, especially by introducing more creative ideas on user interfaces to the car. "We participated in the PlayBook creation and design, and we're bringing some of that technology back into the vehicle space," he said in an interview.
Dell has no strategy
While the PC players, having largely failed in phones, look for new roles and new devices in the “post-PC” era, one giant is playing it very safe. Dell, the most disruptive force in PCs in its hey-day, has none of arch-rival HP's vision in the new age of cloud clients and the mobile web. It has serially failed to make an impact on the handset market and has made a slow start in tablets, recently cancelling its hybrid slate/phone, the 5-inch Streak.
But that did not stop CEO Michael Dell from hitting out at HP's WebOS strategy, even while he offered no more creative thinking than to look forward to Windows 8 tablets. Dell said his firm was still fully committed to Android, despite Google's plan to acquire Motorola, and would also support the forthcoming Windows 8, which will span PCs and mobile devices. “I don't think beyond those two that there are viable alternatives that make sense,” Dell said. “So there's a lot of other noise out there in the market that I don't think will amount to much of anything.”
This was a clear criticism of WebOS, and some analysts also believed Dell was hitting out at RIM and QNX. However, while the PlayBook has also given Apple virtually no sleepless nights, there is a renewed surge of speculation that an acquirer could target RIM for its software assets and its still impressive smartphone base. And Dell is being earmarked as a prime candidate.
Dell appears to be pinning most of its hopes on Windows 8, which will arrive next year, but that means another year in which the firm will have little mobile presence. Its WP7 and Android products are minor players, and despite its plan to stick with Android, its loyalty is questionable. Dell only said he was “still quite interested in Android”, which was hardly a ringing endorsement. He told a conference audience: “Having Android with a stronger ability to exhaust patent claims against it probably sets up an interesting competitive dynamic. We’re still quite interested in Android. I’ll also tell that you our early work on Windows 8 on the tablet side looks to be pretty encouraging.”
Earlier this week, Dell’s stock slumped when the firm lowered its revenue forecasts for the year, citing weak demand, outside its strong server business. Despite its huge impact on the PC industry, Dell has serially failed to repeat its disruptive effect in other devices. Its consumer devices unit saw revenues fall 3% year-on-year in its last quarter, despite new launches. However, the division is significant, accounting for 19% of Dell's total sales.
Dell is seeing the unit's back-bone products, affordable laptops and PCs, being threatened on two sides – by tablets and smart-phones on one hand and by low cost white label manufacturers on the other. And the US firm has failed to fill that hole with its own compelling mobile products. Analyst Shaw Wu at Sterne, Agee & Leach told Bloomberg that he believes 45% of Dell’s business is “vulnerable to Apple” iPads and MacBooks. With that kind of calculation swirling, Dell needs a radical new strategy, and could learn lessons from HP rather than criticizing it.
This article originally appeared in Wireless Watch. For more information go to