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Which OS Should You Target?

Wireless history is filled with plenty of examples, good and bad, including the webOS flash in the pan. Fast-changing fates make it challenging for developers to decide which OS to support. The research firm iGR has been tracking the mobile market for a dozen years, and I recently spoke with its vice president of wireless and mobile communications research about what developers need to consider.

By Tim Kridel

Just how quickly can a mobile operating system go from last to first? Between late 2009 and late 2010, Android’s market share grew 615 percent -- enough to leapfrog into first place.

Wireless history is filled with plenty of other examples, good and bad, including the webOS flash in the pan. Fast-changing fates make it challenging for developers to decide which OS to support. The research firm i GR has been tracking the mobile market for a dozen years, and I recently spoke with its vice president of wireless and mobile communications research, Matthew Vartabedian, about what developers need to consider.

Right now, it’s a race between Android and iOS in terms of global market share. Do you see that changing over the next year or two?

Matt Vartabedian:

In terms of global market share, I expect Android will go down market into the lowest price points and widen the gap against iOS. Nokia’s already there with Symbian and their S40 devices, and their plan is to convert those users (and new ones) to Windows Phone. The clock’s ticking on that strategy since the other major players are already in place. RIM just launched a new phone in Indonesia targeted at that market.

What about BlackBerry, Windows Phone and the other OS’s? Are any of them likely to have their market shares grow or shrink significantly over the next year or two?

Certainly, Windows Phone has done pretty well compared to the other underdogs -- RIM and webOS -- but Windows Phone needs a lot of movement to generate the draw of the two leaders. Our current forecast doesn’t show much Windows Phone movement until 2013 and beyond.

In the U.S., I expect RIM’s market share to bottom out this year and probably stabilize. So much of what that company will end up being hangs on BlackBerry 10, the QNX-based smartphone OS.

There’s no shortage of OS market-share figures on a global or country basis. But should developers also look at other types of market shares? For example, if a developer wants to target the affluent, are there any OS’s they concentrate on?


At this point in the smartphone market’s development, we’re reaching a massive level of adoption/penetration -- at least in developed markets, the U.S. in particular

Our most recent consumer survey showed that Android was in use across all income ranges (in the U.S.), just like RIM and iOS. There are some pockets where the one OS might be slightly more prevalent than others, but there’s not a whole lot of difference on an income level between an Android and iOS user.

In other markets, such as Latin America, there are definite differences in device usage by annual household income. But that’s mostly a non-smartphone versus smartphone discussion. People in those markets want the same devices used in the U.S. or Europe, and carriers are trying new ways of making those devices affordable.

For developers, I’d suggest getting good information about what your target market uses device-wise and then building to that. But then that answer’s obvious: Android and iOS. Which comes first would likely depend on other factors than just income. Knowing your user base and what they want to do mobility- and application-wise is the best bet.

What are other factors to consider when choosing an OS to target? M.V.:

Market share is obviously important, but the type of users is also very important. For example, Apple users are famously loyal; they are very unlikely to switch to a new phone. (In our quarterly research, more than 90 percent of Apple users say they will buy another.) So developing for iOS means you are likely to get a following and then keep it for a while, which is very important. Also, since iOS devices are pricier, the early adopters tend to be wealthier, which means more disposable income and more money to spend on apps. The low-end Android platforms may get a wide following in emerging markets, but disposable incomes are far lower per capita.

How would the possibility that an OS might be extended into TVs, game consoles and other devices affect a developer’s OS choice?


The home is a key battleground in the mobile OS wars. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Apple has stolen a march on its competitors with Apple TV -- the standalone over-the-top box -- and AirPlay. The potential there is huge.

We think that’s one of the reasons Google bought Motorola: to get Android and DLNA-based functionality into the set-top box. Microsoft realizes the threat as well. Microsoft’s actually a bit better positioned because of its Xbox products because that’s something they control rather than having to work something out with a cable provider.

One of Android’s downsides is that device vendors and operators have a lot of flexibility in terms of implementation and hardware. Do you expect that fragmentation to get worse over the next year or two?


I wouldn’t be surprised if fragmentation decreased, in a manner of speaking, over the next few years.

Nokia made a big deal about a lack of differentiation among Android OEMs as part of the reason why it chose Windows Phone. Historically, the most successful platforms have been vertically integrated. Apple is obviously the key example. RIM was doing well with the same model until it dropped the ball. Palm/HP had the same idea but bad timing. Only Microsoft and Google have gone the multivendor route.

Now, Google owns an OEM but continually says they’ll support all other OEMs equally. Microsoft and Nokia share a bed and their fates are linked, regardless of what other OEMs do with Windows Phone. The spotlight, like it or not, is on Nokia.

So -- with regard to fragmentation -- Samsung, HTC, Sony, etc., may double down on what they’re already doing with their own vertically integrated version of Android and try to differentiate that way. The key is content and a consistent, easy-to-use OS and UI.

Of course, fragmentation can be overcome. The real challenge for the platforms and OEMs is getting people to pick one and stick with it. In our opinion, you’re selling the whole package: device, content, usability, extensibility in home and work. Increasingly, it’s going to be content and usability that keeps people loyal to a given platform.



Tim Kridel has been covering all things tech and telecom since 1998 for a variety of publications and analyst firms. Based in Columbia, Mo., he still enjoys the childhood hobby that led to a career writing about technology: ham radio. He is a frequent contributor to Digital Innovation Gazette.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.