Mobile OS predictions, the multidimensional way

Been thinking about this for about a month and finally had some time to write it down. Gartner released their figures on mobile operating systems on September 10. Once again it was a prediction that seems based on total market growth rate, current market share and market share growth rate. No serious analysis of other technical and business aspects as far as I could tell and this in a business which has seen a lot of major changes just these past three years. IDC released similar figures. Both of these companies are happy to supply predictions down to decimal points ranging 3 years into the future. Product cycles for mobile phones are about 1 year (using the ever popular iPhone iterations as the standard measure). This means that 2014 is 3-4 product generations away. To put this in perspective iPhone went from 0 to 15% market share in 3 iterations. Android went from 0 to about 20% in about 2. Thus a linear prediction based on the situation today seems a bit limited. Since I have seen few initiated analysis I decided I might as well note down my own few cents of guesswork.

The knowns
Let us start out with what we know, i.e. the knowns
  • Smartphone product cycles are about 1 year of development and 1 year on the market (based on iPhone iterations).
  • Based on the previous point linear predictions made on current focus from manufacturers are probably valid about a year into the future
  • Currently Android is having major momentum, Symbian is struggling to maintain market share, iOS got a hold of the high end segment and RIM is strong with the corporate sector.
In this known world we may also use the Gartner figures for 2009 and 2010. A plot of the Gartner figures looks like:
The known unknowns

Then let us go on to the transitions that we know about, i.e. the known unknowns
Of these known unknowns there are a few that could have major impact on any predictions made. If either Windows Phone 7 or Meego sees a similar success as Android they will have a market share of 15-20% in 2014. If we plot a success for Microsoft where Windows phone will take some market share from each of the other players we get:
Instead of being a small OS this would put Windows phone 7 at number 3 with a potential to overtake the two dominant players.

The most interesting issue right now though is what will happen to Symbian. Gartner and IDC seem to assume that Nokia will get Symbian right in order to maintain about one third of the market. One of the main reasons that Symbian was open sourced however was that Nokia wanted to share development effort and innovation among more partners. Now Sony Ericsson is not planning any more Symbian products and Samsung is doing the same. This has happened after Gartner released their predictions and some people at Gartner have interesting comments on the topic. But this means that Nokia is now more or less alone as the driving force behind Symbian while the open source innovation and effort seems to be going into Android and maybe Meego. I would not be surprised if Nokia sticks with Symbian until Meego is ready for prime time and then quickly shifts most of its effort to that platform. This would be reminiscent of what many of the other mobile manufactures have done when quickly shifting from other solutions towards Android. If we plot a scenario where Nokia's new management decides to abandon Symbian we get some interesting figures:

In this case I assume that Nokia will get Meego off to a successful start and manages the switch without losing too much market share between 2011 and 2012 but the change will not be without serious losses to other players. In this scenario Android looks like the major winner. Note however that the above scenario could also illustrate what could happen if Nokia sticks to Symbian and fails. Just add in a somewhat slower decline of Symbian and no focused shift to Meego and the scenario would look really troubling for Nokia. If Symbian manages to live up to the Gartner figures I think that would be a great effort based on the above information that Nokia are more or less alone with the platform.

The unknown unknowns

Prediction is about the unknown and in the mobile space the unknown is very big factor. The explosive growth of Android recently shows how quickly the entire market may change. Since the unknown is just that, I will not guess what the next big thing may be but some areas that come to mind are
  • A socially focused phone platform, some force that transforms smartphone interaction in the way facebook, twitter, etc are transforming web interaction
  • A scenario change. The move from feature phone to smartphone went very quick. What is to say that we won't abandon our smartphones as quickly for something else. Maybe just a lightweight hand-held to compliment our tablets.
  • A true move to web technologies which means that the mobile OS will be the browser, not the platform.
  • Or any other of a million possibilities
Assuming something is out there that will hit us in 2011 with the same relentless pace as Android then we may have this scenario:
The implications of this case is that even if you target all available platforms today you may still miss more than forty per cent of the market in 2014.

What to think about this

My alternative scenarios here are probably as far from the truth as I think the original Gartner and IDC predictions are. My main point is that there are a lot of probable outcomes if you look beyond the current sales figures. And these are still pretty shallow observations. We have not even started to look at things such as the operating systems ability to handle the rapidly increasing complexity of the system on chips that will power next generation smartphones. Neither have we touched the issue that some of the open source alternatives that are available may break up into a few different platforms and so on.
To conclude I just want to say that the mobile business is among the fastest moving in the world. If you plan to develop things for this environment you better set up your organization to handle that pace and keep people around who are able to detect when an unknown unknown becomes a known unknown. That is the time when you should do an assessment and decide on how to act. Right now may be the time to go ahead with Android and iOS while thinking carefully about strategy for Symbian, Windows Phone, RIM, Meego and others. Next year it might be the other way around...

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