It's a Windows vs. Linux Mobile Market Turf War

by Paul Rubens

OS Roundup: Despite the noisier iPhone or Blackberry debate, the OS still matters. When it comes to mobile, Windows is losing ground to Linux and other OSes. Will the release of Windows Phone later this year enable Microsoft to prevail?

The latest smartphone sales figures from NPD Group show Google's Linux-based Android OS blowing the iPhone and Windows Mobile clean out of the water. The market research company's first-quarter 2010 figures reveal that although Research in Motion's (RIM's) OS still commands 36 percent of the market, Android grabbed second place with 28 percent, relegating Apple into a humiliating third place with just 21 percent. Microsoft? It's nowhere to be seen.

You can argue that Android sales have been artificially inflated by two-for-one offers and other carrier promotions and that some potential iPhone buyers are waiting for the next model, which is expected some time in the summer. Although Windows Mobile is now a dead duck OS, Windows Phone 7 will not be available for months, so it's not surprising Microsoft's mobile OS sales are so low. But these arguments miss the point. Android is popular because there are plenty of models to choose from right now, at many different price points -- including free with the purchase of another handset. Thus, in the mobile market -- unlike on the desktop -- a Linux OS is now outselling both Apple's and Microsoft's OS offerings.

Here's why this is significant. Windows has been the enterprise desktop OS of choice for years, and there's little doubt that it's helped the sales of Windows servers and Windows Mobile devices to businesses. However, mobile computing is rapidly becoming the market that really counts, and it's looking increasingly unlikely that business users with smartphones, tablets and other ultra-mobile devices are going to be running a Microsoft OS.

The surprise is that despite reinventing the smartphone market when the iPhone was introduced three years ago, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is already losing its grip on the mobile market.

Android's success is likely to have profound consequences for Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Apple when it comes to the enterprise desktop market, and, for Microsoft, the server OS market as well. If you accept the premise that mobile OSes are going to be more important than those on the desktop in the near future, there are some of the likely repercussions.

  • Windows will become less important everywhere
  • If the iPhone loses ground, OS X will quickly become irrelevant
  • Linux, the perennial underperformer on the desktop, will proliferate.

Why will Linux proliferate? When the desktop was the most important platform, the fact that Microsoft dominated it drove sales of Microsoft-powered mobile devices -- and made Windows server implementations make sense. If mobile becomes the most important platform and Android becomes the dominant mobile OS, then it follows that this will drive Linux onto the desktop as well.

Which desktop distro? Just as the iPhone is meant to work best in Apple's ecosystem, and Windows Mobile is meant to work with Windows, Android will probably work best with -- and drive the adoption of -- a Linux-based OS backed by an entity that understands Android. An OS like Google's ChromeOS, for example.

Of course, the battle for the mobile platform is far from over, and Android's strong first quarter figures could prove to be a flash in the pan before the open source software platform fragments and self-destructs. And don't forget that Palm's WebOS is now owned by HP, the world's biggest desktop PC maker, so the company will soon be putting its considerable marketing and financial resources behind more WebOS-based phones, as well as a tablet or two. RIM also has no intention of going without a fight. It is planning to release version 6 of its enterprise mobile OS in the fall, while Nokia and Intel's Linux-based Meego OS is just over the horizon.

But Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) must dream of a business (and consumer) user with an Android mobile device and a ChromeOS laptop running Google apps hosted in a Google data center in the cloud. If that kind of Linux-based open source software future comes to pass, what need would there be for Microsoft or Apple?

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday May 11th 2010
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