Mobile Platforms: State of Play

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Since the advent of the smartphone the software that these devices run has quickly evolved, with version updates and whole new platforms emerging very short spaces of time. As smartphone use has increased, certain platforms have emerged as leaders while others have fallen by the wayside.

With 2012 having been a boon year for the mobile industry, where does each platform now stand in the greater scheme of things? Which operating system is dominating the market, which is pushing boundaries and which is the new upstart that could unsettle things in the future?

That Android is the industry leader in terms of sales will be surprising to very few people. In December, industry research firm IDC released figures which point to Google’s mobile OS accounting for 68.3% of smartphone sales during the year, an enormous figure that puts the platform way out ahead of its competition.

In quite a distant second place comes Apple’s proprietary platform, iOS, which can claim 18.8% of the market. While a significant figure, this still pales in comparison to the dominance of Android.

Beyond this there are several minnows nipping at the heels of the big two platforms, and the current OS landscape seems to paint a picture of older operating systems still sticking around or new upstarts staking a claim on the market.

BlackBerry OS has a 4.7% market share, even though its parent company, RIM, has released few handsets recently and its once industry leading physical keypad designs are considered by many to be old-fashioned.

Meanwhile, Windows Phone can claim 2.0% of sales, with a slew of new handsets emerging as the platform was revamped towards the end of the year. While BlackBerry may be on the decline (in terms of sales at least), Microsoft’s mobile platform appears to be in the ascendency and could well provide some upset for the bigger industry players.

So what has happened with each platform to get them to these positions and where could they go from here?

Android

Android is huge, there is no doubt about that. Since its inception in 2008 Google’s software has gone on to dominate the smartphone world. In 2012 the world’s biggest mobile phone manufacturer, Samsung, sold 30 million units of its flagship Galaxy S III handset, a device which runs Android.

The same firm also launched the second iteration of its phablet series, the Note II, to great acclaim, and continued to sell many lower-specced handsets running the same OS.

Manufacturers such as HTC and LG have also released handsets running the software and Android has become the go-to platform for many smaller firms such as ZTE and Huawei.

One of Android’s many strengths lies in the fact that it exists for (and can run on) a huge variety of devices, with the open-source nature of the platform allowing manufacturers to make adaptations to the basic software so that it suits which ever device is being produced to run it.

With Android now having reached version 4.2, first seen on the latest Nexus handset, the platform is only growing in strength. However, there may be a bump in the road coming as Google appears to be taking a little more control of its OS.

Speculation suggests that the search giant may be making moves to produce its own smartphones in the near future having purchased Motorola’s mobile arm in 2012. With Motorola acting as an in-house manufacturer, a more closely controlled platform could result.

Aside from Android’s dominance, iOS continues to claim a significant share of the market, although well behind Google in these stakes. iOS operates in a different way to Android though; for one it is only used by a single manufacturer. Also, Apple’s OS is specifically positioned at the high end of the market, with each iPhone establishing itself as a leading, flagship device at the time of launch.

iPhone 5

This means that iOS doesn’t have the same in presence at the lower end of the market that Android does and can’t battle Google’s OS sales in that area. While there have recently been rumours suggesting  that Apple is planning to launch a budget iPhone soon, it seems unlikely, although not entirely beyond the realms of possibility.

After all, the iPad Mini seemed an implausible idea before its launch, with many suggesting that the tech giant would not want its hardware and software to become as fragmented as that of Android.

iOS 6, the latest version of the platform, came in for criticism in 2012 for its dumping of Google Maps in favour of an in-house version, Apple Maps. Google has since launched its own mapping app for iOS and the search giant’s recent creations for iOS are very well thought of.

Last year was a big one for Microsoft’s mobile platform, seeing the launch of Windows Phone 8 and deeper integration between the firm’s desktop, tablet and smartphone software.

While on the surface WP8 may have looked like a natural evolution to its processor, the innards of the operating system were very different. Having been rebuilt from the ground-up, the platform now shares the same basic NT software kernel as its desktop counterpart, making it much easier for Microsoft to create a greater ecosystem between its devices.

Another added bonus of the software rewrite is that it should now be easier for developers to port their apps over from platforms, combating one of the major drawbacks from which Windows Phone has suffered in the past.

Nokia Lumia 920 Front UI 2

Nokia has seen some success with WP8, taking a step off the burning platform that its CEO described just two years ago. Other manufacturers have also produced handsets in line with the revamp – HTC and Samsung being of particular note.

Whether or not the platform will take off amongst consumers remains to be seen but Windows Phone can certainly now claim to be a distinctive OS which is real contender for the bigger platforms.

Conversely, BlackBerry didn’t have such a great year, although the platform can still claim a bigger share of the market that Windows Phone. Very little happened in RIM’s world during 2012 with there being few handset launches and no new software.

What did happen however, was that BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins used BlackBerry World 2012 in May to announce his company’s new platform, BB10, and demonstrate some of its features. What was shown was a completely new package, bearing little resemblance to the BlackBerry OS of old, and receiving much acclaim.

Eight months later and we are only just on the verge of seeing this software go public. There has been a long wait for the launch of BB10 but the BlackBerry brand is still loved amongst many consumers, and it’s certainly possible that the name could rise to prominence once again.

So that’s how things stand for the major players at the start of 2013. But what does the future hold?

BB10 Logo 2

Along with listing market shares for 2012, IDC also published predictions for how each platform will fare over the next few years, estimating percentages of smartphone sales each could hold in 2016.

The verdict from this second set of results is that there isn’t a massive change for most of the platforms involved. Android continues to dominate, with a slight fall in share to 63.8%, and iOS comes in second again, with an increase to 19.1%.

The biggest change comes for Windows Phone, which is predicted to increase its market share to 11.4%, likely at the expense of Android and some of the older platforms which will have become obsolete by this time.

Surprisingly, BlackBerry sees little change with a reduction in its share of less than 1%. This seems to suggest that with the introduction of BB10, RIM will neither rise to prominence once again nor fall by the wayside completely.

Overall, Android is king of the smartphone world and looks set to stay on its throne for some time to come. iOS is in a comfortable second place and much talk about emerging platforms, both between commentators and CEOs, is of them taking third place in the line up.

Windows Phone is very much a contender which could gain strength in the future, and RIM’s make-or-break strategy with BB10 is a bold move that could well pay off.

In amongst all this, the competition could well inspire a great deal of creativity and innovation as developers clamber over each other to create for the popular platforms, and this could well prove to be a good thing for consumers.

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