BARCELONA (AP) — The big news from the GSMA Mobile World Congress (MWC) this year: New phones using the Android, LiMo and Symbian open-source operating systems are rolling out in 2009.
What's unusual is that it is not the handsets themselves that are creating the buzz so much as what is under the hood and invisible to the user – the basic software. Lines are being drawn in the battle for dominance among the three main systems.
Vodafone announced this week that it is launching the HTC Magic – a new touchscreen handset based on Google's Android operating system – in Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy this spring.
"This is a new Android-powered device for our customers who want to have fast and speedy access to the Internet," said Vodafone spokeswoman Aileen Thompson.
And more Android announcements are expected as the year goes on: Sony Ericsson and Samsung both repeated their intention in Barcelona to come out with Android-operated phones. The Chinese manufacturer Huawei Technologies committed this week to releasing an Android phone later this year, but it wasn't yet saying with which operators.
Meanwhile, the LiMo Foundation – a consortium of more than 50 companies, including operators Vodafone and Telefonica – is preparing to launch new handsets through six of its operators by the end of the year.
The new LiMo handsets will contain the second-generation middleware – a more complete version stitching together more member contributions than those initially launched in the last year. What is different about LiMo phones from the other open-source operating systems is that the handset makers and operators can customize their own user interface and menus, so that there will be no single LiMo experience.
LiMo says that it has huge market potential because of the strength of its operator network.
"We now have operators specifying and deploying LiMo handsets in large numbers in the second half of the year, operators who together have a billion subscribers," said Andrew Shikiar, LiMo's director of global marketing. In all, LiMo has 11 operators, which the foundation believes will make it a strong long-term player.
"There is a strong, undeniable trend toward open source. I think there is a healthy debate between LiMo, Android and Symbian on how to do open source. We think the LiMo approach is best suited toward long-term planning," Shikiar said, because it allows competing handset makers and operators to modify the user interface and create their own flavor.
Symbian, once Nokia's propriety software, joined the race last June when it formed its own foundation, now with 78 members, and opened the software to other users. Sony Ericsson was the first foundation member to announce a phone with the Symbian S60 label – with the development name "idou" – which will come to market later in the year.
Because of Nokia's dominance in the handset market, Symbian can claim the largest distribution: 250 million devices in use globally and a smartphone market share of 50 percent.
"We're not a protectionist, walled-off community where we're sitting in a smoke-filled room trying to eat Google," said Symbian Foundation Executive Director Lee Williams. "We're trying to rapidly grow a large collection of creative and innovative options for an ecosystem ..."
With open-source operating systems roaring to the forefront, some analysts wonder about the mobile phone business future for the proprietary giant, Microsoft. Besides being free, the open-source software also allows developers to quickly and freely create new applications – critical from the point of view of operators that are seeking to create more data traffic.
"Definitely, Android, Symbian and Windows Mobile will be top OS in terms of smartphones. The challenge now for Microsoft is: No one wants to pay for an OS when they have Symbian and Android for free. What is the point?" said IDC analyst Francisco Jeronimo, who sees LiMo as a niche player.
"Microsoft are the ones challenged now. My question is how long will they continue with a proprietary system?"
Some 20 million devices shipped with Microsoft's OS last year; that compares with 17 million Nokia smartphones in Western Europe alone, along with 59 million traditional devices. Microsoft won't say how much it gets for every OS installed, but analysts put it at $5 to $7.
For CEO Steve Ballmer, the mobile strategy is clear: sell a lot of devices. "Many phones times a small amount of money, hopefully, is enough to make this all make sense," Ballmer said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.