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The Hidden Complexity of the Cell Phone Market

Posted on: August 7th, 2006 by Craig Rairdin 11 Comments

In the latest PC Magazine, Michael Miller writes about the cool new things happening on mobile phones and opines that “consumers should be able to pick applications regardless of phone or carrier.” This is a wonderful idea, but is idealistic to such a degree as to be laughable.

This fact doesn’t escape Miller’s attention. He adds: “There are multiple impediments: a bunch of different platforms that developers write for, a bunch of different phone makers, and four big national wireless carriers that want to control the applications on your phone.”

But the scope of these impediments is wider than one might imagine. To illustrate, I looked at the only the phones offered by Nokia, and only those Nokia phones available in North America, then specifically only those offered in the United States.

Nokia phones come with one of three different operating systems. Each of these operating systems has had more than one edition. Some editions break compatibility with prior editions. That is, programs written for edition 2 may not run on edition 3. Between the three current major operating systems supported by Nokia (Series 40, 60, and 80) there are eight editions. Software written for one Series does not run on the other Series’. In some cases the programming languages supported on one Series are not supported on the other Series’.

Within a Series there are variations on the services available to programmers, and as I mentioned before, between editions there can be major changes that make it so programs written for one edition will not run on the next. This is equivalent to Microsoft making it so that no program written for Windows 98 would run on Windows XP. There are already enough apps that break for some reason even though Microsoft tries to maintain compatibility between versions. Imagine if they intentionally broke all apps when they released a new version. This is unimaginable on the desktop, yet it happens all the time on mobile phones.

Continuing with the Nokia illustration, Nokia offers 123 models of phone in the United States. They have a huge market share and hundreds of millions of customers. However, only about 1/4th of those phones are programmable. The vast majority offer limited capability for third-party additions beyond ringtones.

Of the 30 or so phones that are possible targets for programmers, half are running an older version of the Series 60 operating system that is incompatible with programs written for the latest version. And of the 15 models that are thus targetable for software developers, only one or two have been picked up by any carriers here in the US. As a result, even though hundreds of millions of people are carrying Nokia phones, only thousands are carrying phones that are potential targets for current developers.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m picking on Nokia. I’m just using them as an illustration. The rest of the industry is similar: There are thousands of models of phones each running some highly customized version of some proprietary operating system, making it impossible for the sharing of programs or even data beyond a very limited subset of particular models of phones.

So the dream of running any cell phone software on any cell phone is a long way off — unless Microsoft or Palm comes to dominate the cell phone market and establishes their OS as the standard. And furthermore, the dream of seeing a big uptick in a broad range of software applications for these devices is severely hampered by the inability of the cell phone manufacturers to adopt a standard operating system (or even two or three). Without that, it’s difficult for developers to commit resources to the mobile phone market.

This should not be interpreted as a position statement from Laridian with respect to the direction of its development. We were developing for Windows CE long before it had a measurable fraction of market share, and it could be argued that the BlackBerry is an inhospitable platform for Bible software because so many of them are controlled by corporate IT departments which restrict the installation of third-party apps on the devices. This is merely a commentary on the sad state of the mobile phone market from the perspective of independant software developers.

11 Responses

  1. Scott Jensen says:

    It seems like a Java enabled cell-phone would be a massively useful thing. Afterall, Sun intended Java to be used across platforms.

  2. It sure does, and they sure did. :-)

  3. Michael Sisson says:

    They is probably more here than you’re prepared to address at this time, Craig. However, I don’t guess it can hurt to ask…

    MyBible has become my primary Bible. I hate the thought of if giving it up. Yet, the future of the Palm OS seems uncertain. If MyBible’s future comes into question because Palm never comes out with Cobalt or they move to Linux, would there an exit strategy that would allow me to get my highlighting and notes out of MyBible and into PocketBible or some version of MyBible running in Linux?

    Moreover, if Apple ever came out with a phone that capitalized on their success with the iPod, would Laridian consider offering a product for a mobile version of the MacOS?

  4. I can’t predict what platforms our software will run on in the future, but the general assurance I can give you flows from changes we made a couple months ago that allow you to move your Bibles and reference books from platform to platform. If you were to switch to a Pocket PC device today, you would only need to buy the new reader for that platform. You’d find the Pocket PC versions of your books would be in your download account. In fact they’re there now. Just uncheck the box that says “show only products for which I own readers” or something like that. You’ll see every supported platform for every product you own.

  5. [...] We’ve been watching the announcement of the iPhone with some interest here. While we like new shiny things we’re less than thrilled about the proliferation of smart phone operating systems. On the one hand the iPhone looks cool; on the other it’s just one more OS to support (or not support, depending on how many people buy the things). [...]

  6. Victor says:

    As a UK based Mac & Palm user I am really looking forward to the arrival of the iPhone in Europe. I have used MyBible for years and love it, but it seems that Palm’s days are numbered and Windows Mobile has not convinced me. Palm’s beauty has been the simplicity of its operating system, and I would expect a mobile version of Apple’s excellent OS X would be at least as good. If the iPhone is as wonderful as it looks the only reason I would have to keep my Palm would be MyBible. If the iPhone is a success I am sure other companies will produce bible software and I would reluctantly have to look elsewhere for new products.

  7. Mike Parks says:

    I’ve been using Laridian’s Bible for many years and just switched to a Nokia E61i. I see that this article was in 2006…are you planning on supporting Symbian anytime soon?

    Thanks and God Bless!

  8. Our current plan to address the myriad operating systems in the smartphone market is to extend our iPocketBible product, which is currently targeting the iPhone, to work on all Web-enabled phones. This resolves most of the issues described in this article, though it depends on users having unlimited data plans. With the iPhone coming standard with an unlimited data plan, it’s our assumption that by this time next year all data plans will be unlimited.

    Other than doing something like this, there isn’t a good solution to the proliferation of smartphone operating systems (and operating system variants within companies like Nokia and OS’s like Symbian).

  9. William Allen says:

    I have been a user of Laridian software for years. I started with an old Palm. Then bought the version for my windows based PocketPC. Just recently I switched to a blackberry. I am looking to use the NLT on my blackberry. Will that software ever move beyond NIV and KJV? Thanks for the great software!!

  10. We market the Noah program for Blackberry on behalf of Beiks. We haven’t announced any new add-ons for Noah. That’s about all I can say about it.

  11. William McKeown says:

    Does Laridian have NIV for Nokia E61 – not E61i?

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