With all the commotion going around the iPhone, you might have missed a minor tidbit: it’s still only the 4th most popular open operating system for mobile handsets – trailing behind RIM’s Blackberry, Google’s Android, and… Nokia’s Symbian.
Source: Gartner research
A recent Gartner research placed Android as the 2nd most popular OS after Symbian, forecasting a healthy growth until 2014 while still trailing Symbian. Now that the Symbian Foundation is closing shop, I have reason to believe Android will become the most popular operating system on mobile handsets by 2014, leaving the rest of the pack in the dust.
It no wonder then that reports from Q4 2010 point to the fact of Android already outselling Symbian.
How will this come to pass? By making Android everything that Symbian should have been, but couldn’t.
Symbian was an initiative by multiple vendors. In its golden days Nokia, Sony Ericsson, LG, Samsung, Motorola and others have manufactured phones running the Symbian OS. Its demise can probably be attributed to 3 main reasons:
- Nokia’s grip and control over the OS, which placed the other partners at an uncomfortable position
- The expensive licensing model employed by Symbian, which made it unattractive to the majority of the smaller players
- Missing monetization infrastructure for 3rd party developers
Android, on the other hand, is becoming a common place name and brand: something vendors flaunt as an advantage.
Here’s a quick “survey” I did among my friends (here in Israel): I asked them to check with their relatives, who are usually not technically savvy, whether they know what Symbian is, what Android is, and what mobile OS is running on the phone they are using. Out of 17 respondents only 1 knew what Symbian was while 7 knew what Android is. To put this in perspective – 11 of them had a Nokia phone. And that’s in Israel, where Nokia rules the market, and where all service providers (3) stroke deals with Apple to push thousands of iPhones to the market on a yearly basis of around 100,000 each. And that’s in a country with 7 million people – so they have no incentive in promoting any other device.
Elsewhere around the globe, Android branding is a lot stronger.
In Korea, SK Telecom actively promotes Android ahead of the phones themselves:
SK Telecom isn’t alone. Vodafone Australia did a “Vodafone Android Island Party” for the launch of their Android devices:
In the US, Verizon allows customers to choose Android as a search parameter for phones:
Handset developers are promoting their handsets and leave the Android branding of their devices – something they haven’t done with Symbian. Such an example is Motorola’s viral video for their upcoming Android tablet:
Application developers are promoting their iPhone and Android apps in TV commercials. Look at the one for Amazon’s Kindle:
How did that happen? How come people know about Android but not about Symbian? What did Google do different? Here are 4 factors attributing to Android’s brand success:
Google decided from the beginning to make Android an open-source initiative. By doing that, it made sure that developers will be more than happy to use it – being able to tweak around, play and learn from the Android source code.
The most important part of this was the fact that they have placed most of its base code under the Apache license – a license that allows handset vendors, chipset vendors and independent developers to pick their own license for their own intellectual property.
Such openness creates a large ecosystem that in turn enhances the value of Android, eventually causing vendors in the ecosystem to actively promote their solutions under the umbrella of the Android brand.
2. Fast release cycles
In an industry that was accustomed to moving fast with release cycles of 12-18 months for devices and even longer for operating system versions, Google’s Android has no rivals with release cycles of 6 or less months per version. This is both a blessing and a curse for Android as I already explained.
For Google this allows to react fast to market demands and to its head-to-head competition with Apple’s iOS. It also means its ecosystem vendors remain busy playing catch up with the innovations and having less time building their own branding and searching for alternatives to Android.
3. Caring for the developers community
Where Symbian failed was with developers. I once had to deal with Symbian and the experience wasn’t a warm and fuzzy one. As a developer on Symbian you need to relearn everything you already know about developing applications. With Android based on Linux and Java to a large extent, the learning curve wasn’t a steep one.
A recent ViaionMobile survey sponsored by Telefonica Developer Communities shows just that – Android and Symbian are at the extremes of the developer’s learning curve scale.
To this, the additional benefits of the Android Market for developers who need to publicize and monetize their applications is something that Symbian has never done.
4. Remaining external to the device industry
Google has one more thing going for it with Android that Nokia didn’t have with Symbian – the fact that it isn’t a handset manufacturer. This makes it a lot easier for other vendors to embrace Android and innovate on top of it instead of searching for alternatives.
When Google came out with its Nexus One handset, device manufacturers didn’t like it. The fact that Google haven’t pushed this device to the market gave them some more time to stay in the sidelines and remaining external to the industry.
How will Google’s Android fair in the coming years? It will continue to flourish as long as Google will be able to play its delicate game of being cooperative with service providers, handset vendors and application developers.