Vodafone CEO calls for mobile OS consolidation

Sarin makes plea for fewer systems at Mobile World Congress

The wide variety of operating systems on mobile phones is hindering the growth of mobile internet applications, according to Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin.

The success of a mobile internet application can be influenced by how easy it is to develop for a particular software platform, and how attractive the resulting application is to use.

"The first imperative for us is world-class user experience," Sarin said in the opening keynote session of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week.

"The easier the interface, the more you use it and the more you get onto the internet."

Mobile phone operating systems are key to that experience, he said, but there are too many of them: as many as 30 or 40, Sarin estimates.

"We have to reduce that number. There's no way that developers of cool applications can develop for that many operating systems. If we had three, four, five, that would be better," he said.

"Note, I didn't say one!" he said, with a nod to the market for PC operating systems. "We've seen that movie before."

One reason for the proliferation of mobile phone operating systems is that, historically, handset suppliers offered their own proprietary code to make the best use of their phones' limited processing and memory resources. Developing applications for such closed systems is difficult.

Today's high-end phones, though, have as much computing power as low-end PCs, spawning a new market for operating systems such as Symbian OS and Windows Mobile, that run on phones from multiple manufacturers.

That ought to reduce the number of software platforms in the market, but more are still arriving, including several based on Linux.

Vodafone distributes and supports phones with many different operating systems, but not the one that for Sarin proved the importance of the operating system: Apple's iPhone.

"Apple has raised the bar with the iPhone, and we all now know how important user interfaces are," he said. "We as an industry will have to raise our game to provide the kind of user interface that our customers are now becoming accustomed to."

Apple changed the market with slick software and a closed design tied to its own hardware, initially making it difficult for developers to add applications. The company plans to open things up a little with the release of a software development kit (SDK) later this month.

Another new arrival in the mobile phone operating system market is Google, which hopes to change the market with a different approach: making it easy to build and use compelling mobile web applications.

Google began by releasing the software development kit for Android, an application framework built on a Linux base, and founded an industry group, the Open Hardware Alliance, to encourage its use. Several chipmakers demonstrated prototype phones running Android in Barcelona last week, and Google hopes that manufacturers will release handsets based on the software later this year.

Naturally, Google hopes to profit from this move by driving greater use of its services on the web. But other companies will benefit too, if their sites are usable by more phone owners.

For Sarin, that's good news too: more internet use means more revenue-generating data traffic on his network.

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