Oy! Here Come More Operating Systems: Facebook, EU Carriers

Who's got a mobile "operating system"? Let's see: Apple, Google, Nokia, RIM, Palm, Microsoft, Samsung (not to mention Java and Brew). Now we discover that Facebook may be building a phone with a hardware OEM and the European carriers may be working on a joint, pan-carrier OS to combat Google and Apple.

First the EU carriers: they're reportedly considering a range of options that could include a common mobile OS. This comes from an article published friday: 

French newspaper Le Figaro has reported that Stephane Richard (pictured), chief executive officer of France Telecom-Orange, has invited the heads of Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica and Vodafone to discuss the possible creation of a common platform for mobile devices. The talks, which are scheduled to take place 8 October in Paris, are motivated by a view that Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems have become a “Trojan horse” for these companies to establish their own relationships with mobile customers, reducing the significance of the operators in the value chain.

Due to the early state of the talks, it has not been decided what form the alliance will take, with options mooted including the formation of a joint venture or creation of a common apps development unit....

The article speculates that the joint venture could involve one or more of the following:

  • Creation of a common platform based on Symbian (or LiMo)
  • Creation of a highly distinct version of Android
  • Creation of a common middleware layer that is branded to carriers 
  • Creation of a new OS from scratch

The carriers will probably recognize that creation of a new OS is not likely to succeed. They're not software companies and will have difficulty competing accordingly. A custom version of Android and/or a proprietary middleware experience is more likely. Regardless they're not going to be able to "go back" to the days when they owned the customer entirely. It's pure nostalgia to think so.

The bureaucracy and cultural challenges within these large companies combine to suggest the risk of total failure for such an initiative is quite high. A case-in-point by analogy: at one point the French wanted to create a pan-EU search engine to combat Google, which completely failed.

A parallel development reported by TechCrunch is the rumor that Facebook is working with an OEM on developing a phone, similarly wary of Apple and Google's rising control of the smartphone market. However there have been many "social networking" phones that have featured Facebook to date, all largely unsuccessful. The most visible was Microsoft's ill-fated Kin.

Motorola's MotoBLUR software focuses heavily on Facebook but it hasn't really served to differentiate the phones that carry it. And INQ Mobile (owned by the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa) has put out a couple of "social mobiles," handsets that prominently feature Facebook: the INQ Mini 3G and the INQ Chat 3G. I don't have any sales data but they appear to be decent devices. 

If the "Facebook phone" rumor is true it almost certainly must be directed toward younger text-heavy users and not the higher end of the market. To succeed as a smartphone there would need to be more to the software than simply Facebook. Facebook has more than 500 million users around the world, but those users don't simply "do" Facebook. (Update: the OS is potentially Android, which if true addresses some of my critiques.)

Perhaps Facebook thinks it can revive "Platform" and compete there with apps and a developer ecosystem. However, it would be much smarter to go after the middle or lower-end of the market. For these and other reasons, I'm skeptical that the Facebook phone initiatve is quite as ambitious as the rumor argues, but we'll see.

New operating systems are unlikely to change the market substantially. Notwithstanding tools that allow developers to "write once" for multiple platforms (e.g, Rhomobile, Appcelerator) there's room for only about five smartphone operating systems to survive. That's partly why I think the Europeans will build whatever they decide to build on top of existing platforms (Android, Symbian/MeeGo) rather than create something new -- and probably mediocre -- from the ground up. 

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See related: How Long Before FB Is a Mobile Ad Network?