Android's on top – will Nokia and RIM let it in?

More likely that Nokia will go for WP7

Android has overtaken Symbian to become the number one mobile operating system – a feat never achieved by Apple iOS – and now the new Honeycomb release should enable Google's platform to eat into the iPad's tablet market share too.

With Nokia reportedly mulling a change in OS strategy ahead of its analyst day next week, and RIM considering allowing Android on its PlayBook device, is it really conceivable that Google will gain the kind of dominance of the mobile platform that Windows had on the PC?

Nokia to back Android?

It's unlikely. We think that, if Nokia does adopt a third smartphone OS, it will go with Windows Phone 7 rather than Android, seeking to create an alternative power base to Google. And though WP7 itself has seen a slow start, Microsoft will not be abandoning it, at least not until it can stretch mainstream Windows over the mobile platform too. Apple, obviously, will not go away, and as mobile web usage shifts slowly but surely towards the cloud, new entrants including MeeGo, RIM QNX, webOS and Google's own Chrome OS will become more compelling and start to gain share, especially on large-screen form factors.

And for users who can't decide which OS to choose, virtualisation is likely to become a reality on handsets from this year, while the intensifying focus on HTML5 and the browser will gloss over OS differences anyway. At that point, it will be all about the user experience – the real reason Android has done so well, riding on the back of strong overlays like HTC Sense, Motoblur and Samsung TouchWiz. A powerful UI is what Nokia needs to start biting back against Google, not another operating system.

That hasn't stopped the rumour mill working overtime on the idea that the company will add WP7, or even Android, to its portfolio when CEO Stephen Elop presents its turnaround plan at a corporate strategy day on February 11. The company certainly needs to do something sufficiently radical to restore confidence in its ability to drive the smartphone market. Too few concrete results have been seen in the two years since it outlined its ambitious web services strategy, and Elop has now been in place sufficiently long for the markets to expect strong direction.

Speaking at the company's financial results, Elop said that "Nokia must compete on an ecosystem-to-ecosystem basis. In addition to great devices, we must build, catalyze, and/or join a competitive ecosystem". The word "join" set off a flood of renewed speculation that Nokia would sign up for a third party OS. This would not mark the end of Symbian, which has huge – though declining – market share and is well suited to many of Nokia's increasingly carrier-centric policies in emerging economies. Nokia is expected to continue to target Symbian at emerging markets, affordable smartphones and operator branded products, but there is rising speculation that it will adopt an additional OS for the midrange, and particularly for the US, where its already small market share dropped by a further 32 per cent in the fourth quarter.

A multi-platform strategy for smartphones would also raise questionmarks over MeeGo, the Nokia/Intel platform. It is unlikely that would be canned; it is very advanced and a chance to differentiate in new device formats such as cloudbooks. However, it will take a long time to create a full ecosystem and Nokia may look for a quicker fix for the conventional smartphone space, something to sit between Symbian and MeeGo.

The Windows option

Choosing Android would be a shock for political reasons because of Nokia's interest in limiting the power of Google, though it could also use its weight to wrest the agenda from Google somewhat. WP7 would be less surprising – Nokia and Microsoft have become allies in recent years, and Elop has come over from the Redmond firm. But it would force Nokia to pin its high end devices on two unproven OSs, WP7 and MeeGo. As yet, the jury remains out on whether WP7 will become a significant mobile force, despite its strong qualities. Nokia's market reach and influence would help, but it could also find itself fighting an uphill battle on Microsoft's behalf. According to NPD Group, the older Windows Mobile was still out-selling WP7 in the fourth quarter, at least in the US. Microsoft revealed recently that it had sold two million copies of WP7 to handset OEMs since it shipped (late October in some European and Asian markets, early November in north America), but it would not say how many of these had been sold on to end users.

Microsoft executives have been managing expectations by insisting that WP7 is a long term project and is not expected to be an overnight sensation as it aims to change the way people behave on mobile devices – but Nokia has several slow-burning initiatives of its own. What it needs next Friday is a quick fix.

It also needs to emphasise the strong, but ill-understood, multi-platform strategy that it already has. Spanning multiple OSs is nothing new for Nokia. When it acquired Trolltech for its Qt developer technology, it explicitly stated – and later restated many times – that for now it was focused on Symbian, but its future was to create powerful web and apps platforms, and developer bases, that would run across many mobile OSs. Of course, it is another step actually to make and sell devices running another OS, but Qt remains the centrepiece of the Nokia plan.

The main problem with adopting a new OS would be yet another blow to confidence in Nokia. It would be seen as an admission of defeat in strategic terms, even while it could help Nokia address new segments, notably the US. Samsung is riding high on a multi-OS strategy – Android, WP7 and its own bada – and even RIM may open its BlackBerry products to Android. RIM is expected to adopt the Dalvik virtual machine, which is also used by Android, and this would allow the firm's QNX devices, such as PlayBook, to run apps written for the Google OS. This could be a means to build an apps base quickly, especially before the HTML5-oriented tools of QNX gain full support. It could also be a prelude to running full Android in future.

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