In last week’s column, I suggested that mobile platforms, such as Symbian and Windows Mobile, may be on their way out. I received a number of calls and e-mails about that comment, so this week I’d like to expand on this important topic.
Operating systems have always been near and dear to my heart. I got my start in technology as a systems programmer developing operating systems components, and I even designed and wrote one while I was still in college. The technology remains fascinating to me today, but I no longer think operating systems are a good idea for clients, especially mobile clients.
The purpose of an operating system is make the cold, hard, unyielding reality of hardware accessible and useful, providing data and task management, along with a user interface for applications and the operating system alike. These days, though, I’m a Web services, service-oriented architecture, software-as-a-service kind of guy. As a result, I’d argue that only a minimal execution environment is required on a mobile device — just enough to support a browser, a local cache and maybe a little local processing for Java and such. Admittedly, today’s reality of less-than-ubiquitous wireless infrastructure renders this vision merely a goal, but it does reflect where I think corporations are headed over time.
Desktop operating systems have become great big beasts that demand a lot of processing power and other resources (especially support dollars) to yield good results. Because of this, I assume they will become unsuitable for mobile use other than, perhaps, on notebook computers.
Of course, the Apple iPhone could change all of this. It runs Mac OS X and, while I’d argue (as I did above) that this isn’t a good idea and will ultimately be unnecessary, I’ve had some conversations lately with those who made a really good point: A big operating system is required to support today’s big browsers, which are practically operating systems in and of themselves. So, while I might favor a browser running on otherwise bare (but mobile) metal, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
And, indeed, it may be that Apple’s use of OS X will motivate others to follow suit. I’ve been discussing with our clients the possibility that Microsoft might rework the Ultra-Mobile PC platform and use this variant of Windows XP (or perhaps XP Embedded) to power future smart phones. This operating system obviously provides a good base for running Internet Explorer and other popular browsers like Firefox. This trend, in turn, would make the mobile and desktop experiences much the same, which is a desirable goal.
In either case, today’s mobile operating systems, most notably the Palm OS, Windows Mobile and Symbian, may not be long for this world. They clearly can’t compete if the big browser becomes the norm — and I think it will.
A little research reveals several other firms working on the big mobile operating system concept. Most of these are outgrowths of the traditional embedded software industry, now dominated by Linux. MontaVista already has Linux running on some Motorola handsets. A la Mobile is building a similar Linux-based environment for mobile phones. And a version of Mozilla called Minimo has been ported to the Linux-based Nokia 770.
As I noted last week, I believe that the trend is now going to be in favor of much bigger operating systems on mobile devices. And, while this trend certainly supports the desktop browser and Web-services models, it also introduces the possibility that the cell phone might eventually replace the PC. We simply won’t need to carry notebooks since our phones will support both traditional PC functionality and the desktop browser experience. I think this may in fact be the single biggest motivator for Microsoft to join the big mobile operating system party. Once they do, the future will be a lot easier to predict.