Switched On: The last smartphone OS

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Palm's webOS certainly faces strong competition as it vies for attention from manufacturers, carriers, developers and consumers. But Palm was able to knock out at least one ailing offering by making webOS the replacement for the old Palm OS. For others it may not be so easy. In fact, with the barriers to entry now so high and the commitment to existing operating systems so great, webOS may be the last major smartphone operating system launched for the foreseeable future.

With webOS taking the baton from Palm OS, the number of major smartphone operating systems has stayed fixed at six. Three of them -- Symbian S60, Windows Mobile and Android -- are intended to be used by handset makers from multiple manufacturers, whereas iPhone OS, BlackBerry OS and webOS are used only on the handsets offered by their developer. Of course, even these "purebred" operating systems owe much to older platform technologies, with Android and webOS being built atop a Linux kernel, iPhone OS having its distant roots in FreeBSD, and BlackBerry and Android building on Java. The race to attract software to these platforms has ignited an arms race of development funds to both prime the supply pump and the promotion of app stores to lead the horses to he touch-sensitive virtual koi ponds..

Developing and maintaining a smartphone operating system is a serious and expensive undertaking that can consume a company. Producing the original iPhone caused Apple to miss the self-imposed ship date of Leopard, and third-party app support did not come until much later. Whatever Microsoft is planning in a major overhaul for Windows Mobile 7 has taken long enough to warrant the release of the interim 6.5 release that still leaves the company far behind the state of the art. WebOS development clearly took up a significant portion of the $425 million investment from Elevation Partners in Palm. And finishing a 1.0 release is just the beginning.

If a company wants third-party developers to extend the functionality and make it a real platform, that company must develop a software development kit and support developers. The webOS SDK, for example, only recently became available to developers at large, and developer reaction has supported what Palm has long said: it will be some time before deep hardware integration enables the kinds of game experiences seen on other platforms. Rather, Palm is betting on the integration of Internet information with the context of where you happen to be at whatever time. Its Web-standards app approach even seems to have tickled Google's fancy, which is espousing such development for Chrome OS even though its Android SDK is a relative babe in the smartphone OS woods.

Google may realize that the stakes have been significantly raised. It's unlikely that a startup could develop an operating system compelling enough to win over handset manufacturers at this point. While the "new Palm" has been portrayed as a startup, it still had many legacy assets, including an installed base, a recognizable brand, and -- most importantly -- relationships with major carriers in the U.S. and Europe.

On the other side of the market share pie chart, the five largest handset manufacturers have aligned to various degrees with the three licensed operating systems. Fragmenting attention with too many operating systems was one of the distractions that bedeviled Motorola before it decided to cast its lot with Android. There are also now too many alternatives to rolling your own SDK, and so we'll continue to see the evolution of "user experiences" such as Panels on the XPERIA X1, TouchWiz on Samsung devices and HTC's TouchFLO-based Sense user experience on Android and Windows Mobile. Even these mobile makeovers can require heavy investment in R&D; HTC claims it has the largest Windows Mobile and Android development teams outside of Microsoft and Google.

But maybe one of the other existing operating systems will drop out? Again, this isn't likely in the near term unless it's at the hand of a direct replacement. All have significant or growing hardware support and all have sustainable resources of money and community behind them. None of this is to say that we won't see phones or other mobile devices with other, and even open, operating systems. The arrival of WiMAX in the U.S. should open doors to products like a 4G-enabled Nokia Internet Tablet, which runs a Linux distribution called Maemo that has an active developer base. But for companies that aspire toward the kinds of high volumes that can attract the attention of premiere software developers, it looks as though the window of opportunity for a new handset operating system is snapping shut like a sliding keypad.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.