Why Microsoft is Acorn and Symbian is the new CP/M
Today's phones are just like '80s computers
Opinion Today's glut of mobile platforms is surprisingly reminiscent of their proliferation on desktops during the 1980s: an analogy which might show how things will develop over the next few decades.
Comparing the operating systems running on today's phones with those of yesteryear is curiously easy - it fits too well to be just coincidence. Both markets seem to have space for a similar number of players with different styles, though the comparison bodes badly for Symbian this time around, and even worse for Microsoft.
Android is clearly an apt inheritor of MS-DOS's crown - cobbled together features doomed to endless instability by the requirement to support a disparate range of hardware. Android works great for some, but others discover their shiny new handsets simply won't download applications from the Marketplace or refuse to pick up a 3G signal, though others have no such problems.
Android users are expected to just tolerate this, and deal with it as best they can though peer advice from the technically better equipped. Just as their forebears (or, more likely, their younger selves) got used to the idiosyncrasies of MS-DOS.
DOS, of course, ousted CP/M - the OS which was considered a shoo-in for the desktop platform of choice, regardless of who made the hardware. And it's in the role of CP/M that we find Symbian lurking: technically superior in many ways, but with a management that was unable to change fast enough to keep up with the new kids on the block who jumped in before anyone had noticed there was a gap.
Not that Symbian is the only one who's been pushed aside - with Android taking Microsoft's spot that pushes Redmond's offering elsewhere: roughly into the place where Acorn once stood. Having achieved early success, with the BBC Micro, Acorn created a new platform with huge optimism. That platform, the RISC-based Archimedes, had many nice features but never really caught on.
The success of the BBC Micro wasn't just down to it having a proper keyboard and removable ROMs, but more the way it was integrated into the educational system of the day. Windows Mobile, equally, owed much of its success to its integration with enterprise systems and Microsoft's insistence that Windows Phone 7 is a consumer offering seems likely to take the platform out of the enterprise in the same way that the Archimedes comprehensively failed to break Acorn out of the school gates.
Some companies do make it out of the education system. Apple, who hid there for a while, has managed to put iOS just where the Mac OS used to be, with simplicity of use outweighing all. Early Mac users suffered accusations of brand slavery and overpriced hardware, just as iPhone users do today, and just like today's iPhone users they bore them with the smug confidence of someone who knows their experience to be a better one.
It's probably too late to bring in new players, though that's not stopped Samsung from launching Bada. With its high aspirations and loud promotions it's hard to consider Bada as anything more than MSX - the mid-80's ill-fated attempt to produce a home-computer standard. In its favour MSX did lead to El Reg's favourite advertising jingle, courtesy of a Toshiba TV ad (better if sung): "What about next year when it's out of date? No worries Dad, this is MSX mate!".
And what happened?
Unfortunately by next year MSX was indeed out of date, and despite selling several million units it never became the standard the owners intended.
One can even extend this analogy to encompass Java, or J2ME as the phone-version is known. Java, rather unfortunately, compares well to the BASIC language of the 1980's, in that every computer ran a variation of it, but you couldn't expect an application developed on one to work properly on another without considerable effort. J2ME is still a useful language, but fragmentation of implementations continue to hold it back.
Take this analogy and run forward twenty years or so, and we find that Windows Phone 7, Symbian and Bada are memories brought up in the pub for the sake of geek nostalgia - or worse, relegated to powering something like the Amstrad PCW, where CP/M found a home for a while. In 2030, if our analogy is accurate, the majority of people are using Android, while a small, but vocal, minority continue to insist that Apple makes the best of everything.
One thing we have failed to do is find a place for the Blackberry, though if we keep our horizons within the UK then it's tempting to compare RIM to ICL. ICL certainly dominated government departments, but the comparison isn't really satisfactory, so we welcome suggestions for the 1980's player who most resembles RIM, and anyone else we missed off.
Our analogy isn't complete, or entirely accurate. It's obviously wrong to compare the mighty Google with the fledging Microsoft, though taking IBM's involvement in the promotion of MS-DOS into consideration perhaps that's not too far from the mark.
The point is that the number of desktop operating systems expanded hugely, and then contracted as the majority of people wanted decided to either be different, or run the same software as everyone else.
That left space for two significant players - and all the evidence now points to the mobile industry following a similar course. Only smaller. ®