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What next for mobile phone operating systems?

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3rd July 2012

The past few weeks have been pretty eventful in terms of mobile phone operating systems, with most major vendors announcing something new.

 iOS 6 Apple's iOS 6 was announced last month, bringing turn-by-turn navigation (and dumping Google Maps in the process), an improved version of Siri and better Facebook integration. Although not a major upgrade, Apple users will surely be happy with the continued improvements in the operating system.

Microsoft also announced plans for Windows Phone 8, an operating system that will be based on the same core as Windows 8 running on PCs and tablets, and it will support a much wider variety of hardware and be easier to manage for corporate customers. Although still using the Metro interface on top, Windows  Android 4.1 Jelly Bean 8 will be fundamentally different underneath and it will not run on the current crop of Windows 7 smartphones. However, many of the improvements will be carried forwards into Windows Phone 7.8 which will run on those devices.

Android has also received an upgrade with Android 4.1 (also known as "Jelly Bean"). This version is meant to offer performance improvements and better voice support plus a number of other upgrades, and it will be seen first on the Google Nexus 7 tablet.

 BlackBerry 10 The news from BlackBerry maker RIM was not as good however. In addition to posting a significant loss for the last quarter, RIM also announced that their next generation BlackBerry 10 operating system would be delayed until early next year.

Out of all of these, Apple's offering is the most impressive even if the changes are relatively minor. iOS 6 will run on all iPhones back to the iPhone 3GS (although not the original iPad) which shows a substantially better commitment to customers than Android manufacturers.

With Android, many customers are still stuck waiting for a promised upgrade to Android 4.0 from Android 2.3. The release of Android 4.1 only serves to underline how bad the situation is for some owners. In some cases the promised upgrades have been cancelled, in most cases they are taking a lot longer than originally anticipated. In our view, the only reliable way to get a handset running Android 4.1 will be to buy a handset running Android 4.1 out of the box.

The radically different approach to Windows Phone may also present a problem to manufacturers who will have to go off and redesign their handsets from scratch. In the long term this move is likely to give Microsoft a significant strategic advantage, but Microsoft's partners are likely to be unhappy about having to start again with their smartphone designs. However, several manufacturers have shown commitment to this, and Microsoft have a reasonable chance of some success.

The situation for RIM is the worst of them all. RIM have pinned their hopes on the new BB10 operating system, based on the QNX OS in use in the BlackBerry PlayBook, but even if it came to market now it would probably be too late to improve matters.  Firefox OS The world doesn't need any more mobile operating systems and iOS, Android and the improving Windows platforms are likely to be very hard to beat. As it is, RIM are pinning their hopes on a OS due sometime next year which will probably not be enough to reverse their slide.

One wildcard is the Firefox OS from Mozilla coming in 2013. This ultra-lightweight operating system will be appearing on ZTE and Alcatel branded phones. As the name suggest, the Firefox OS is based around HTML5 applications rather than being a monolithic operating system (such as iOS and Android). Is this the next big thing or will it be another failed platform? We don't know, but it is certainly going to be interesting to find out..

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