Analyzing the Mobile OS Market

Opinion: Guy Kewney looks at Microsoft's chances of challenging Symbian's lead in the mobile OS market.

One day, the story may be told of why developers tool house Metrowerks pretty much abandoned two of its best customers—Palm and Symbian.

But when it is told, I dont expect the story to be told by a smug Microsoft smart phone manager. Call me skeptical, but the idea that Microsoft, with the most bloated platform in the mobile business, is going to be able to sneak in under the big, powerful phones that Symbian creates just sounds like fantasy.

But how did this fantasy arise?

Whenever a new software platform arises, theres a mad stampede of innocent and/or naive programmers who want to create the killer app for it. With Palm, the stampede is more or less over. There are thousands of applications for the worlds most popular PDA, and a huge number of those will work on the phone edition. Even so, last week in Munich, PalmSource CEO David Nagel made all the right noises to encourage European developers.

The interesting question is whether Symbian, at its developers conference this week in London, will be able to make a similar impact.

I had a bit of a go at Palm recently, and Nagel was honest enough to admit, at the Munich Devcon, that my criticisms pretty fairly reflected what he heard from many analysts outside North America—that Palm was a bit late to the party and Metrowerks had pretty much bailed out of the room.

That gap has been filled, unlikely though it may seem, by IBM. The new Cobalt OS from Palm has a Palm OS Development System (obviously called PODS), which is a totally free, open-source development platform jointly designed by PalmSource and IBM. Now Version 6.1, the "phone edition" of Cobalt, is available, and were just a week away from seeing a nice new Treo 650 and Tungsten T5—not to mention a mystery phone from Samsung—on which to run it. So the reconciliation can begin.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read about the latest Tungsten.

By one of those coincidences that makes you realize quite quickly that its no coincidence at all, Metrowerks will be a subject for discussion at the Symbian developer thrash. A similar thing happened in its case. Metrowerks had its eye on a different ball—but with a different solution. Where Palm found someone else, Symbian (through its parent, Nokia) was big enough to pinch Metrowerks staff.

But does that mean that the two phone platforms are free of the past and ready to move on?

Does it even mean, as ABI Research seems to think, that Microsoft can run off with the prize while Palm and Symbian fight over it?

Next page: Will Microsoft step into the breach?