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.
It's unlikely that a startup could develop an operating system compelling enough to win over handset manufacturers at this point.
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.