Smartphone Platform Buyer's Guide

Five operating systems--BlackBerry, Linux, Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile, each with its strengths and weaknesses--account for most of the smartphone market. Apple's unveiling of the iPhone, packing a downsized version of the Mac OS X, throws a sixth contender into the mix. The following analysis will help IT organizations sort out their options by focusing on their suitability for business. Music and text messaging are fine for the teen set, but how good are these devices at word processing, spreadsheets, and run-your-business applications?

Smartphones are becoming mobile computers, loaded with Web access, e-mail, calendars, and dozens of other options. The challenge is selecting a phone that fits the needs of mobile workers without becoming an IT support nightmare. Two-thirds of respondents to an InformationWeek survey this month cite security and manageability as top smartphone software features. Multimedia support--a must-have among consumers--ranked dead last.

Security is the first criterion for any hardware that Planned Parenthood Federation of America standardizes on, says Wayne Markover, director of IT technical support. Planned Parenthood staff use one of two smartphones: Research In Motion's BlackBerry or Audiovox's XV6700 running Windows Mobile. The BlackBerry stood out for its strong security and e-mail, while Windows Mobile offered the best integration with Planned Parenthood's Exchange server.

The top U.S. cellular carriers--Cingular, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint--have made progress over the past year upgrading their networks to support high-speed data services, and T-Mobile is pouring $2.7 billion into its infrastructure. The upgrades make it more feasible for road warriors to access applications while on the move. Demand for wireless access to business apps is fueling smartphone sales. In the first half of 2006, 38.5 million smartphones were shipped worldwide, up 75% from the same period a year earlier. More than 200 million of the devices will ship annually by 2009, In-Stat predicts.

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How do smartphone operating systems compare? The Palm OS is established among mobile users, having powered the first commercially successful PDAs more than 10 years ago. While somewhat outdated--there's no multitasking or 3G support--the Palm OS is the most sensibly laid out and easy-to-use operating system on a smartphone today, says Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis.

Symbian is the market leader, running on 100 million smartphones worldwide. It's the most network-friendly of the bunch, able to switch among Wi-Fi, 3G, and 2.5G networks, depending on user preferences.

In the United States, RIM's BlackBerry and Microsoft's Windows Mobile are the market leaders, competing for business users who want wireless e-mail automatically pushed to their devices and on-the-go access to enterprise apps. But the two are quite different. RIM offers the best combination of mobile phone, server software, push e-mail, and security from a single vendor. Windows Mobile doesn't need extra middleware for wireless e-mail when used with Exchange Server 2003. PC users find the transition to Windows Mobile smartphones simple, since Windows Mobile shares features like the Start menu from the full-fledged Windows operating system. Because the learning curve is short, training costs are minimal.

Mobile Linux means lower development costs for smartphone makers, since there are no licensing fees, and offers an ecosystem of related software, such as development tools and middleware. No industry standard mobile Linux exists yet, though two in development are due this year. It remains to be seen if the industry will rally around one or both.

Applications Count
When choosing mobile operating systems for their companies, IT managers must consider application availability. The Palm OS supports more than 29,000 apps, Windows Mobile about 20,000, and the BlackBerry 1,500 business apps plus thousands of consumer applications.

Which leads us to Mac OS X, which will power Apple's iPhone, due midyear. Apple says its device will give users access to "true desktop-class applications and software," includ-ing e-mail and text messaging, Apple's Safari browser, widgets, calendar, and address book. Yet it's unclear how many third-party applications will become available for the iPhone or how IT departments would manage applications for iPhone-carrying employees. OS X may be the most interesting of the smartphone operating systems--but it's also got the most to prove.


What makes it so popular? Freedom of choice, says Jerry Panagrossi, the company's VP of U.S. operations. Written in C++, the Symbian OS has a "plug-in" architecture, making it easier for manufacturers to add technology of their own. That supports device differentiation--a key consideration in the smartphone market--and hastens delivery of new and in-demand features.

The Symbian OS--unlike RIM's BlackBerry OS or Apple's Mac OS X--can be licensed by any manufacturer, and its APIs are publicly available. That translates into more options for IT departments. Symbian, for example, works with a variety of wireless push e-mail services, including Intellisync, Visto, and BlackBerry Connect.

Symbian OS version 9, released two years ago, comes with certain features that IT administrators appreciate. The Device Management framework, for example, lets admins access a user's phone remotely to add network services or applications, diagnose a problem, or audit applications on the phone.

That popularity has a downside. Symbian has been a target of malware that crashes phones, installs malicious code, or wirelessly transmits data to other devices. A virus called Commwarrior has infected some Symbian smartphones; once in place, the virus spreads to other phones via Bluetooth.

Some companies feel safer with a less open operating system. "Robust security is what we look for in a mobile OS," says Kevin Bott, senior VP and CIO of Ryder System. The truck rental and transportation company issued 500 BlackBerrys to its salespeople and senior-level staff, choosing the BlackBerry for its security and support features.

Ryder tested Palm Treos but found support unwieldy. It took hours to set up Lotus Notes on a Windows Mobile-based Treo, compared with 15 minutes on a BlackBerry. "There's a learning curve with all these mobile platforms," says Bott. "You want the technology that's easy to use and won't put you over the edge with support calls."

Symbian is bolstering security. In the latest versions, applications need permission to access sensitive phone capabilities, helping IT departments lower the exposure of their corporate data, says Panagrossi.

What Symbian lacks is presence in the United States, where it has only 10% of the market. Cingular is the only U.S. carrier that sells Symbian phones: Nokia's E62 and 9300. Symbian aims to expand in the States this year as carriers complete their 3G rollouts.

Symbian's main challenges: RIM's popularity and Microsoft's Windows integration.


But there's a problem: too many Linux variants from Motorola, SavaJe Technologies, TrollTech, and others. Applications designed for one Linux- based phone generally don't work on another. "It's a big disadvantage today for Linux compared with Symbian and Windows Mobile," admits Haila Wang, president of the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum, formed 14 months ago to create specs for mobile Linux.

Two efforts are under way to create an industry-standard mobile Linux. Access, a mobile software company in Japan that acquired PalmSource, the maker of the Palm OS, plans to introduce a Linux for smartphones--called the Access Linux Platform--in the first half of this year, using the standards set by the LiPS Forum. Access' Palm OS, now available on Palm Treo phones, has fallen to No. 5 in the smartphone OS market, accounting for only 2% of worldwide sales in the third quarter of 2006, compared with 4.5% during the same quarter a year earlier, according to Canalys. (Linux accounts for 17% of the smartphone market.) Access intends to give the Palm OS new life by putting a Palm emulation layer on its Access Linux Platform.

"One of the reasons behind our migration to Linux is to have a platform that's highly reliable, highly secure, and robust, which are the key features that IT departments look for in a mobile OS," says Mike Kelley, senior VP of engineering at Access. The company has integrated more than 120 open source components into the Access Linux Platform and optimized them for smartphones. It's also added features such as a "service access policy," which controls access to smartphone resources, to make its new platform more secure than the Palm OS, Kelley says.

The transition has some Palm OS users concerned. Mark Spruill, an IT director at Mighty Distributing System of America, a company that sources auto parts from manufacturers and delivers them to technicians, worries about his company's investment in Palm-based applications. "I don't want to convert all my code to run on another OS if I don't have to," Spruill says. A portion of the company's salespeople use Palm OS-based Treo 650 smartphones with a point-of-sale application.

The Access Linux Platform will be able to run applications created for Palm OS via the emulation layer. With more than 400,000 Palm developers and 29,000 Palm apps, "we understood that maintaining compatibility was critical," says Didier Diaz, senior VP of strategic product management for Access.

Palm Inc., maker of Treo smartphones, has made no commitment to the Access Linux Platform. Last month, Palm agreed to license a version of the Palm OS called Garnet from Access. Current Analysis speculates that Palm might convert Garnet into a software layer on top of Windows, Symbian, or Linux. Palm will say only that it plans to create "future variations" of the Palm OS.

NTT DoCoMo, the driving force behind the partnership, and other carriers are pursuing a dual-sourcing strategy, as they don't want to depend on one operating system, and customers like choice. Symbian is the other operating system they've settled on.

Since some members are competitors, however, the consortium faces challenges around governance and sharing of intellectual property. In order for the initiative to succeed, the companies will have to develop APIs that support applications across devices. NTT DoCoMo and the handset makers plan to form an independent foundation to jointly develop APIs, architecture specs, reference source code, and tools.

One of the goals of the LiPS Forum is to develop standard APIs for services such as messaging, presence, and voice calling, as well as APIs for application and device management. LiPS plans to publish the service layer APIs this year. Access, meanwhile, plans to open source its application framework

for the Access Linux Platform, and it's working with LiPS Forum and the Open Source Development Labs to determine how they may adopt the framework.

What all this means is that the existing Linux and Palm smartphone camps may begin to gravitate toward two emerging Linux options. But even that may be too many. After all, there's only one BlackBerry OS, one Symbian, one Mac OS X, one Windows Mobile.

Linux's challenge: reducing the fragmentation.

Windows Mobile

"Most people are used to Windows. You can click 'Start' to get wherever you need to go," says Michael Hernandez, assistant director of IS at Century 21 Thomas, a real estate and vacation rental company that's transitioning to Windows Mobile-powered Treo 700w smartphones to synchronize with its e-mail server. It will replace Palm OS-based Treo 650 smartphones.

Windows Mobile comes in two flavors. A smartphone edition is good for wireless e-mail, calendaring, and voice notes. A Pocket PC edition adds mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Companies buying Windows Mobile smartphones should know what they're getting. Motorola's Moto Q, which runs the smartphone edition, is geared toward consumers; Palm's Treo 700w, with the full functionality of the Pocket PC edition, is a better choice for businesspeople.

Microsoft last year released a Windows Mobile feature pack for Exchange 2003 that for the first time supported automatic e-mail delivery, or push e-mail. The beauty is that no middleware is required.

But it's buyer beware with Windows Mobile. Users have complained that Microsoft's mobile operating system locks up, requiring frequent rebooting. And device memory sometimes gets used up by programs running concurrently, slowing down apps.

Nevertheless, IT departments that use a lot of Microsoft products may find Windows Mobile hard to pass up. Developers can use the familiar Visual Studio and .Net tools, and there's a special version of Microsoft's SQL Server database for mobile applications.

What's more, Microsoft's just-released Windows Vista operating system comes with a Windows Mobile Device Center, which automatically recognizes a mobile device and allows it to sync with Outlook and Office files. By midyear, Windows Mobile will support new Word, Excel, and PowerPoint file formats in the 2007 Office system.

Microsoft's challenge: Symbian's more experienced, RIM's more focused, and Apple's got the mojo.


RIM showed it was serious four months ago when it released Enterprise Server for MDS Applications, software to create, deploy, and manage mobile applications for BlackBerrys. The software, previously packaged with RIM's e-mail server, was launched as a standalone product for customers who want mobile apps but not wireless e-mail.

The BlackBerry OS--currently version 4.1 or 4.2, depending on the smartphone model--supports 1,500 business applications and thousands of life-style apps such as mapping, photo sharing, and reference dictionaries. BlackBerry applications are written in Java, so they can run across models of various form factors and that work over different cell technologies.

RIM gives IT departments control over which third-party applications they support. The operating system also distinguishes between trusted applications--those that can access information from a personal contacts list, for example--and untrusted apps with limited access.

In addition to support for push e-mail and business software, the BlackBerry OS is relatively secure. It uses end-to-end encryption to protect data between smartphones and the BlackBerry Enterprise Server.

BlackBerry's strength is also its shortcoming. RIM doesn't license its software to other manufacturers, so it doesn't offer nearly as many devices as most of its hardware competitors. And RIM's approach doesn't encourage device diversity. Through its BlackBerry Connect program, RIM pushes e-mail only to a limited number of non-BlackBerry devices--select models from Nokia, Palm, and Samsung.

RIM's challenge: Out-innovate the competition and expand globally by appealing to a broader range of users.

Mac OS X

Mac enthusiasts were thrilled to hear the Mac OS X operating system will drive the iPhone. Think of it as a Mac computer, iPod, and cell phone mashed together.

The OS X design, however, comes up short in several ways. The platform works exclusively over Cingular's network, and it's a closed system. Apple and Cingular will control the type of software available for iPhones. "If you're looking for an open ecosystem of applications to add to the phone, it won't be there," says Philip Solis, an ABI Research analyst who describes iPhone as a "feature phone" rather than a smartphone.

The iPhone initially won't support 3G cellular technology, which is the direction wireless carriers are going. Users could be stuck with slow data speeds on Cingular's Edge network.

What stands out is the iPhone's touch-screen design--no thumb-fumbling keyboard. Apple's not the first smartphone maker to use a touch-screen, but its endorsement could push more smartphone designers in the same direction. Of course, it's possible that many users will prefer keypad phones. The iPhone will be a test of who wants what.

Apple's challenge: OS X is loved by creative types in advertising and design firms, but Apple must open the operating system to developers if it wants to broaden appeal to other professionals. Not likely. Of course, Apple could stay focused on the consumer market. If so, the iPhone may show up in business environments, but IT departments won't be the ones buying or supporting it.

Jean Francois Podevin

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Road Map For Smartphone Operating Systems