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Phone makers roll their own operating systems as Google and Microsoft close ranks

Ian Paul | Sept. 6, 2013
With so much change happening in the smartphone market, there's no telling what the future holds.

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Sometimes, you can't help but pay attention to what the man behind the curtain is doing. Earlier this week, Microsoft announced plans to acquire Nokia's device and services business for more than $7 billion, effectively seizing control of the entire Windows Phone experience, from software to hardware to services.

Just like that, the companies behind every major smartphone operating system now compete directly with their manufacturing partners. And while Google erected a "firewall" between Android and Motorola when it bought the handset maker in 2012, Microsoft has no plans to separate Nokia from the core Windows Phone business. It's full steam ahead for Microsoft-made smartphones as Redmond tries to single-handedly turn Windows Phone from an also-ran into a contender.

The sudden circling of the in-house wagons has to have third-party handset makers like Samsung, HTC, and LG sweating.

"Vendors who are not tightly aligned with an operating system company...[have]...got to be looking at this and saying 'Maybe I should be looking a little more closely at how to chart my future by partnering or owning my own operating system stack,'" says Ramon Llamas, a research manager with IDC's mobile phone team.

Indeed, with their OS options looking increasing cloudy (if not downright perilous), hardware ronins like HTC are starting to fight fire with fire by creating alternative smartphone OSs.

Striking out on their own

TIZEN. The Tizen logo  

"Vertical integration was hard to ignore with Apple, then Google," says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. "But now it's impossible with Microsoft going it on their own. What it emphasizes is that there is a need for a truly open mobile operating system."

That's the approach Samsung is taking with Tizen, an open-source operating system developed in partnership primarily with Intel, as well as Huawei, Fujitsu, Panasonic, and others. If successful, Tizen could turn into a backup plan for Samsung's booming Galaxy handset business should Google change the rules of the Android game for device makers.

The first Tizen smartphone is expected to ship this year, but even if it does, it will take multiple quarters—if not years—before Tizen becomes a viable platform, says Llamas. For the foreseeable future, Samsung is all about Android.

Other companies are also exploring their OS options. LG, presently one of the world's top 5 smartphone makers thanks to its Android business, supports Mozilla's Web technology—based Firefox OS project for mobile devices. The first Firefox OS smartphone was released in Spain this summer, and many more are coming down the pipeline. As if that's not enough, LG gave Palm's failed webOS a fourth lease on life earlier this year, albeit as a smart TV platform.

 

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