Mobile operating systems and browsers are headed in opposite directions

As the mobile OS market fragments, mobile browsers are consolidating

During a panel at Web 2.0 Expo, someone asked if the panelists saw any signs that suggest mobile operating system fragmentation might decrease.

One of the panelists had a blunt answer: “No. There will be more fragmentation.”

It is striking to see the different trajectories mobile operating systems are on when compared to the mobile web.

In 2006, two smartphone operating systems accounted for 81 percent of the market. There were really only four platforms to worry about: Symbian, Windows Mobile, RIM, and Palm OS. These represented 93 percent of the market.

Smartphone Operating System Market Share Percentage
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Sources: Canalys, 2006. Gartner: 2007, 2008, 2009.
Symbian 67 63.5 52.4 46.9 ?
RIM 7 9.6 16.6 19.9 ?
Windows Mobile 14 12.0 11.8 8.7 ?
iPhone 0 2.7 8.2 14.4 ?
Linux 6 9.6 7.6 4.7 ?
Palm OS 5 1.4 1.8
Android 0.5 3.9 ?
WebOS 0.7 ?
Windows Phone 7 ?
Bada OS ?
MeeGo ?
Other OSs 1 1.1 2.9 0.6 ?

Fast-forward to the present and the picture is different. No single operating system has more than 50 percent marketshare. There are seven operating systems being tracked and even within operating systems there are fragmentation concerns.

The future promises more operating system fragmentation, not less:

This list doesn’t include differences within each particular operating system. Much has been made of Android fragmentation due to different user experiences like MotoBlur and HTC’s Sense UI. And some argue that even the homogenous iPhone platform is starting to fragment.

There are more mobile operating systems coming and no signs of the mobile OS market narrowing any time soon.

The mobile web is converging

By contrast, the mobile web is converging on HTML5 and WebKit.

Unlike mobile operating systems, mobile browsers were fragmented a few years ago. The list of early mobile browsers include a series of proprietary browser engines:

  • jB5 Browser
  • Polaris Browser
  • Blazer
  • Internet Explorer Mobile
  • Openwave
  • NetFront
  • Obigo
  • Blackberry Browser

That’s a fraction of the browser options that were available to mobile phone users. And while there is still work to be done to make mobile browsers more consistent, it is nothing compared to the inconsistencies between early mobile browsers.

Today, every mobile browser is moving toward HTML5 support, if it isn’t there already:

Modern Mobile Browsers
Engine HTML5
Mobile Safari Webkit Yes
Android Webkit Yes
Blackberry 6 Browser Webkit Yes
Symbian^3 Webkit Yes
MeeGo Webkit (Chromium) Yes
Internet Explorer Internet Explorer 7 No
WebOS Browser Webkit Yes
Bada OS Browser Webkit Yes?
Opera Mobile Opera Presto 2.2 Yes
Opera Mini Opera Presto 2.2 Yes
Fennec Firefox Yes
Myriad (former Openwave) Webkit No
BOLT browser Webkit ?

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about this list:

  1. The only major browser that definitely will not support HTML5 is Internet Explorer, but Internet Explorer 9 for desktop is going to support HTML5. Eventually the mobile browser will as well.
  2. Saying a browser supports HTML5 does not mean it supports the full HTML5 spec right now. It simply means that it supports a portion of the spec and is on track to support it fully.

The support isn’t perfect, but it is clear that all of the mobile browsers are moving toward supporting full HTML, Javascript and CSS in a way that is already decreasing the difference between browsers.

WebKit: The dominant mobile platform

The WebKit browser engine now has a dominant position in mobile browsers. When BlackBerry ships its new browser based on WebKit, 85 percent of smartphones will ship with a WebKit-based browser.

2009 Smartphone Market Share (Gartner)

Just because a device uses WebKit does not mean it has the latest version of WebKit and can use HTML5 fully. PPK has documented the many inconsistencies between WebKit implementations. Alex Russell makes a compelling counterpoint that the inconsistencies aren’t that bad if you factor in when the browsers shipped.

WebKit is also used by numerous feature phones. Vision Mobile estimates that at the end of 2009, WebKit had been embedded in more than 250 million devices.

Advancing the mobile browser

In many ways, HTML5 is just the baseline of where mobile browsers are headed. Many companies, from carriers to handset manufacturers, are looking to mobile browser innovation as a key to their mobile strategies.

  • WebOS extends Javascript to provide access to device characteristics like the address book, camera, and accelerometer.
  • Sony Ericsson worked with the PhoneGap community to create its WebSDK.
  • Symbian is wooing developers with access to the dialer, calendar, camera, contacts and other tools using web technology.
  • Forty carriers and handset manufacturers have formed the Wholesale Application Community to build an open platform that will work on all devices. They seek to combine JIL and BONDI. JIL and BONDI provide access to device APIs via web technology.

There are two common threads in each of these stories.

First, companies throughout the ecosystem are extending mobile browsers to provide more functionality and attract developers to their platforms. Second, they are all approaching it in similar ways built on HTML widget technology.

Much like WebKit, there will be inconsistencies between these efforts in the near term, but all of these efforts are headed in the same direction.

Mobile Competitive Landscape

In December, Morgan Stanley released its Mobile Internet Report. Buried among the more than 1,000 pages in that report was a slide showing probability-weighted scenarios for mobile operating systems:

Mobile Internet Operating System Competitive Landscape

In the most probable scenario, “products with the best HTML5 browsers gain share.” It is no wonder then that so many mobile companies are lining up behind HTML5 and pushing mobile browser technology.

Two to many, many to one

In 2006, two mobile operating systems controlled 81 percent of the market. This year there are 10 different smartphone operating systems.

Over that same period of time, mobile browsers have gone from many different proprietary rendering engines to the point where WebKit alone will power browsers in more than 85 percent of the smartphones sold.

From two operating systems to many. From many browsers to one. We have two core mobile technologies headed in opposite directions.


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