The Smartphone Graveyard

Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and ghouls, welcome to this spooktacular blog. Pay no heed to the howls, hoots and cackles that fill the air, come on in out of the wind and rain and join me inside…

The Tomb of The Doomed Smart Phones
Serious note: the last 10 years has seen two smart phone platforms rise to prominence in the shape of iOS and Android, but in that time a great many others have come and gone. We thought that there’s no better time to examine these dead (or should that be undead) systems than at Halloween… because you never know when one of these might darken your door…

The Sad Tale of a Wandering Spirit
My friends, gather round as I tell you the sad story of a prince born of a once noble family. webOS, once bound for smartphone greatness, now wanders the world as a sad and lonely wraith, unable to find its resting place.

webOS was born out of Palm Inc. who were market leaders in the PDA space in the 90s and early 2000s with their successful “Pilot” range. With the smartphone explosion that Apple primed in 2007 the death knell tolled for the “traditional” PDA market, so Palm looked to get in on the action with webOS.

webOS launched with the Palm Pre, a round and friendly-looking touch-screen device, with a slider that revealed a full hardware QWERTY keyboard. Although the “prē” was initially well received when announced, thanks in part to its quirky but functional design, quality control issues soon reared their ugly heads and harmed sales.

Then, in a theme common to many “old school” players in the phone and PDA world, Palm were acquired by a larger technology company; in this case it was HP.

HP initially committed to making webOS its de facto software platform across a range of devices: phones and tablets were of course on the roadmap, but so too were printers running webOS and even a version which could run under Windows to be included on HP’s desktop and notebook computers. The future seemed bright for the young prince from Palm; surely webOS had found a home?

Sadly, it was not to be. The printer and desktop versions never materialised and phone and tablet sales were poor. By the time they were released, the dominance of iOS and Android made it impossible for the HP Pre, Pixie, Veer and Touchpad to get a foothold. This too made App developers wary of spending time building apps for a platform with such a limited audience and lacking the diverse app ecosystem of its two biggest competitors. webOS sadly floundered.

And then, if the fortunes of this plucky young soul couldn’t get any worse, HP announced that they were ceasing development on webOS (and seeking to sell their Personal Systems Group responsible for their consumer personal computer products). The lonely spirit of webOS found itself wandering the earth in search of a home once again.

The shelter from the storm came from another technology giant in the form of LG. LG took the former smartphone OS and thrust it into the limelight and into the living room by repurposing it for use on their range of smart TVs, where the wandering spirit of webOS still resides. Oh, and on smart watches, and as of CES 2017 on a smart fridge too!

This is a story of a Smartphone OS wandering the earth looking for a home and a purpose. Its current resting place is far from where it started and to (badly) paraphrase Shakespeare:

All the world’s a platform,
And all the operating systems merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one operating system in its time plays many parts

webOS may no longer serve its original purpose on smartphones, but unlike some of the other operating systems we mention in this blog, it is still with us and has left its mark on a range of devices. It isn’t the first smart device operating system originally conceived for one type of hardware, only to find itself repurposed for use on another and it’s interesting to note that even Android was originally being built for the next generation of cameras before being refocused on phones.

Frankenstein’s Monster
You would be forgiven for thinking that Android is the only operating system for Samsung and its smart devices, but you'd be wrong. Enter Tizen, a concoction of many forgotten operating systems; their parts roughly arranged on a slab, stitched together and brought to life in a mad scientist’s lair.

The Tizen operating system is backed by the Linux Foundation, but mainly controlled by Samsung, who use it on phones, watches, televisions, printers, refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners etc. etc. If you're worried about mobile operating systems gaining sentience, it's Tizen I'd be most worried about: it's all around us, probably.

How did it come to be? It is a long and sad tale involving many predecessors, several failures and more than a few missed opportunities. Once upon a time (2005), Maemo was released to the world on the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. There were a few more tablets and even a phone (the Nokia N900). Meanwhile (since 2007) Intel were working on Moblin, which they then handed over to the Linux Foundation. In 2010, the two projects joined forces and thus MeeGo was born. MeeGo was slated to power all sorts of devices, from phones to computers, from televisions to vehicle entertainment systems. Nokia launched the utterly delightful N9 smartphone, which was powered by the Maemo-based MeeGo/Harmattan, then duly embraced Windows Phone as their mobile OS of choice.

Stay with us, there's more! The LiMo Foundation, a not for profit consortium, was gearing up to take on Android, Symbian and Windows Mobile with their own Linux powered OS. Several LiMo powered phones were released. Amongst them was the Samsung GT-i8320 (Vodafone 360 H1), launched in 2009. But in 2010, Samsung launched the GT-S8500 Wave, powered by another Linux based operating system called Bada!

With Nokia on their ill-fated journey towards oblivion, Intel and Samsung joined forces in 2011 to create Tizen, which primarily inherited from Samsung's version of LiMo. Over the following years, Bada too was brought into that fold.

Meanwhile Maemo/MeeGo spawned Mer, a free Linux-based platform for other device manufacturers to build upon. Sailfish OS, created by Jolla, is the prominent example of a Mer derivative. Then there is Hybris, a compatibility layer which allows Linux (glibc) systems to use Android drivers and libraries. This Frankenstein's monster is used by many including Sailfish OS and the late lamented Ubuntu Touch.

The Curse of the Smart Phone Mummy’s Tomb
The Old Ones speak of those that came before. Ancient beings animated and active long after their natural death, lumbering, dusty and held together with fetid bandages. These operating systems originated from times long before the Great Smartphone Revolution of 2007. Though they once ruled the roost, they were unable to adjust to a new world where a smartphone was no longer a productivity tool restricted to businesspeople in need of a mobile office or a niche gadget for power-users, but a ubiquitous toy.

Hailing from the Frozen North (or Canada as it is usually known) BlackBerry Limited, or rather Research in Motion (RIM) as it was known back then, went from making various wireless products, such as point of sale terminals and pagers, to being the biggest smartphone manufacturer in the world.

BlackBerry OS was especially known for its security and productivity features and their phones were well regarded thanks to their high quality physical keyboards. At various times they were the devices of choice for corporates, drug dealers, teenagers and government agencies. But ultimately they struggled to stay relevant once Android and iOS became popular and end users simply stopped caring for the features which once set BlackBerry apart – a cruel and peculiar irony given the recent commercial push towards stronger smartphone security, an area that Blackberry were traditionally strong in.

The old Java based BlackBerry OS was first replaced by the QNX based BlackBerry Tablet OS and BlackBerry 10. These new operating systems were well designed, and had modern features. They could even run Android apps (but not very well sadly!). This reimagining wasn't enough to turn BlackBerry's fortunes, so they tried another tack: in 2015 the BlackBerry Priv was released, running Android; if you can’t beat them, join them. Sadly, the Blackberry name attached to an Android phone was no longer an exciting proposition to consumers and sales were disappointing.

These days BlackBerry branded mobile phones are made by TCL, who also own the Alcatel and Palm brands; a sad shell of its former self. (Blackberry’s QNX technology, though no longer operating in the smartphone domain now forms the basis for the technology embedded in many automotive systems, but that, dear reader, is a story for another time…)

Ride the winds eastwards from Blackberry’s home and veer slightly to the north and you’ll reach the presumed homeland of the once mighty Symbian. Symbian’s identity is intrinsically linked to Nokia due to the overwhelming prevalence of the system on the Finnish company’s smart phones throughout the early 2000s. Devices running the Symbian operating system were sold in large numbers, particularly the multimedia focused N-Series phones and the more business-centric E-Series devices, and an honourable mention must go to the Communicator series of PDA-like phones.

Symbian’s point of origin is closer to home though: originally based on an operating system called “EPOC32” which was born out of a company called Psion, headquartered in London. In its heyday, Symbian brought together some of the biggest players in mobile telecommunications with Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Sony all collaborating with Psion to bring the operating system to the masses. Symbian was used by these companies and many more to help build their smart phones.

By 2010 though, Symbian was a walking ghost. Nokia were releasing high-end Symbian-based devices that would have been exceptionally impressive in the context of a pre-iOS and Android world, but now felt very dated. So, why then, with such broad support did Symbian fall from grace? This topic is worthy of its own book (and indeed , at least one has been written on the subject and the excerpt I’ve read are excellent. The emergence of newer, exciting, app-centric systems will have certainly dulled Symbian’s appeal, but a mismanagement of its development and modernisation hurt the OS (which, by 2007 was already 10 years old); Symbian was at various points brought inside Nokia, open-sourced, closed up again and out-sourced to Accenture. It certainly seemed like Symbian lacked a clear pathway or strategy to compete with the new upstarts.

In 2011, Nokia (who were the last company outside of Japan providing life-support to Symbian) announced that they would be using Microsoft Windows Phone 7 as their sole smartphone platform. 2 years later Microsoft would announce that they would be purchasing Nokia.

Which brings us to Microsoft – if ever there was an operating system success story then Windows would be it. Windows’ domination of the desktop cannot be denied, so then surely they would have a similarly strong position in the smartphone market?

Microsoft’s venture into mobile devices dates back to the mid-1990s when they announced Windows CE: a version of the Windows kernel designed for low powered, embedded systems. Initially this version of Windows targeted “Pocket PCs”, providing an experience similar to the desktop versions of windows, but on small form-factor devices. Although some manufacturers adapted this technology to run on smartphones, Microsoft wouldn’t release a true smartphone platform until 2002.

The mobile version of Windows was renamed to “Windows Mobile” in 2003, although it’s important to note that the “Mobile” here was not necessarily “mobile phone”, rather just… “not stationary”. Smartphone technology was available, but it was just one way that the operating system could be deployed and there was still a significant focus on PDA type devices.

Microsoft tried to reduce the friction for developers (Developers, Developers) writing applications for the platform by using the familiar “Win32” programming interface borrowed from the “classic” desktop version of Windows. In fact, many features and concepts in Windows Mobile were “borrowed” from the desktop versions of Windows including attempts to port the look and feel of the operating system. This arguably led to a “desktop first” approach where any many Windows Mobile applications, and the operating system itself appeared to be the poor cousins of their desktop versions.

In the face of modern operating systems which were tailor made for mobile devices, these “desktop lite” devices offered a comparatively poor user experience. It wouldn’t be until 2010 that Microsoft would release an operating system specifically designed for mobile phones, with Windows Phone 7, but this was met with a mixed reception. The look and feel of the operating system was somewhat unique while still being clean and functional, but Windows Phone 7 shipped with many features that smartphone users were now expecting as standard missing, and it offered no backwards compatibility with previous Windows Mobile applications which made it a proposition which was hard to recommend.

Many of these issues were addressed in future updates and as a user Windows 10 Mobile is a fine operating system which integrates well with the rest of the Windows ecosystem. But by the time of its release, iOS and Android’s stranglehold on the market was insurmountable. Early in October Microsoft announced that Windows Mobile was “no longer a priority”.
Too Spooky for You?

Don’t be scared, dear reader; though many of these undead smartphone operating systems still lurk in darkened corners waiting to reveal their terrifying presence at a moment’s notice, CCL have significant experience dealing with a whole range of smartphones, not just iOS and Android, and would be delighted to help you with your enquiry.

Alex Caithness and Arun Prasannan
Principal Analysts (Research & Development)

Sign up

Sign up to receive the latest news and insight from CCL Group.