Question for 2011: Can there only be one? How many smartphone and tablet OS will the market support?

How many smartphone and tablet OS will the market support? The only thing that seems certain right now is that currently there are too many.

Do smartphone and tablet operating systems need to be the same?

Not necessarily. However they will most likely be. Apple, Google and HP/Palm have designed the same OS both for smartphones and tablets. It seems that this is also what RIM is doing and Microsoft on the other hand has already proven that it does not work to put a desktop Windows on a tablet.

How many platforms will the market support?

This is obviously a question that cannot be answered right now, but I think 2011 will give us an answer.

What seems to be certain for me is: there are too many right now:
iOS (Apple), Android (Google), WebOS (HP/Palm), Blackberry OS (RIM), Windows phone 7 (Microsoft). Up until recently there were also MeeGo and Symbian – both of which are effectively dead now.

My prediction is that the market will support less than 5 in the long term, maybe only three (we’ll come back to this aspect later).

Why? In the past nobody cared what OS ran on a phone.

True, but this is changing. Smartphones have become like computers and they are now part of an ecosystem (a combination of hardware, software, services and content).

In the past people changed phones like they changed socks. If things went well they were able to get their contacts from the old phone to the new phone. Apple however has trained users to expect that content, apps and purchases can be easily transferred to a new device within the same ecosystem.

People who have done significant investment in apps and other things that cannot be transferred from one operating-/ecosystem to another will be less likely to change to another platform. Of course it will still happen, but people will need good reasons to change the platform.

People who do not care about this will continue to buy dumbphones / feature phones.

How many will survive?

If the past is a guide to the future the answer is: probably three. Here are three examples from the present / past.

I) The current computer market

Right now the PC market is dominated by three operating systems: Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS amd Linux. Although Linux never managed to leave a very small niche, it is still relevant and obviously Windows does by far dominate the market. Many others had tried and failed to gain significant market share (OS/2, BeOS, etc.)

II) The video game console market after the big crash

The games console market is dominated by three platforms right now: Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. There a lots of parallels with smartphones: a game console is a closed system, controlled by the manufacturer and recently the consoles have become full ecosystems with online services, movie purchase and rental options, etc.

There have been additional market entries again and again but at the end of the day in each cycle a maximum of three consoles were really successful.

III) The home computer market in the late 80s and early 90s (in Europe)

There was a lot of competition but three platforms co-existed successfully for a while: The Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST and the x86/IBM compatible PC.

Eventually the PC x86 platform won – obviously.

Who will survive?

My prediction is that Android and iOS will be dominant for the next years – basically they have already won. One or two other platforms might also gain/defend significant market share.

My prediction is that one of them will be RIM, because in contrast to Microsoft and HP, RIM still has significant market share to defend and RIM can basically not afford to loose as this is RIM’s core business. If HP or Microsoft decides to throw in the towel, it will be painful for them, but they will survive.

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