Nokia is in the news for it’s CEO announcing that they have a “Burning Platform”, Jeff Waugh gives an interesting analysis of the situation .
What is a Platform for Phones?
This whole scenario makes me wonder about what a platform should mean in terms of mobile devices. Wikipedia says “A computing platform is some sort of hardware architecture and software framework (including application frameworks) that allows software to run. Typical platforms include a computer’s architecture, operating system, programming languages and related user interface (run-time system libraries or graphical user interface). 
I think that Nokia’s problem was that it didn’t leverage it’s strength in making great phone hardware. Nokia used to have a commanding share of the market due to simply making better phones. They had phones that were upwardly compatible (the same UI and used the same chargers), their phones were always very solidly constructed, and they had some good design features such as having the battery comprise part of the case – which allowed a replacement battery to be physically larger for longer battery life. Even now they have hardware features which are better than the rest – such as the N8 which is widely regarded as having the best camera of any phone. Nokia also did some smart things like releasing their N800 series of phones with more open software than most companies used, they supported running arbitrary Linux applications.
While they kept the platform as the API interface on a phone OS and maintained several different OSs (with multiple versions in production at any time) they made a less desirable platform for developers and a lot more development work for themselves.
Nokia fragmented their own market. There is no technical reason why they couldn’t manufacture a phone that is capable of running a choice of their own OS as well as Android (or alternatively their own OS or the Windows Phone OS). There may be technical issues that prevent designing a phone to run either Android or Windows phone, but they could have got two out of three options available.
On top of a hardware phone platform we could have multiple software platforms, Android, Windows, Meego, etc. The users could then decide which one to use.
A Hardware Platform for Phones
I think that it would be ideal if a phone company offered phones with a choice of OS and allowed the user to change the OS. The N8 is a great phone and the hardware is really appealing, I would have definitely bought one for my wife if it ran Android. Also the resale value of phones can be improved if they can be re-purposed. If someone knew that people on ebay were paying good rates for an old phone because it could be re-programmed then they would be more likely to buy it. As phones are essentially free for most people due to telco deals, a phone that has a resale value of $200 is a lot more desirable than one with a resale value of $100 if all other things are equal.
I would like to see the mobile phone as a platform just as the IBM PC compatible was a platform. Imagine if IBM had sued Compaq into oblivion when they first cloned the PC, if that had happened I don’t think that I would be using an IBM PC (Thinkpad) right now. The early IBM PCs really weren’t great systems for home use, for pretty much anything you might want to do the early PCs didn’t compete well with CP/M systems and systems from Commodore and Apple. It was only when cheap clones flooded the market that the “PC” platform took off. Modern PCs can boot from disks that were created 20 years ago. At every time during the PC’s history there has been a choice of OSs available that work with the standard BIOS boot loader and expect certain essential hardware (such as a BIOS interface for video, keyboard, and storage). This choice increased the market allowing economies of scale in production. It also allowed competition between vendors which forced the margins to be low and resulted in PCs becoming cheap – over the last 20 years every aspect of a PC apart from Intel CPUs and Microsoft Software has steadily dropped in price.
I would like to see phones designed with a common boot loader, a common core set of CPU functions (I believe that with ARM CPUs a lot is optional), and common interfaces to the touch-screen and the GSM system. The boot loader would ideally have support for booting multiple OSs, in a typical end-user case the store would provide the phone configured to quietly only boot one of the available OSs – but it would be trivial to offer the user a choice of OS at boot time for advanced users. The process of installing a custom ROM image in a phone is regarded as dangerous at the moment and most people who would like to do such things are hesitant due to the risk of “bricking” their phone. If booting the last good OS was an option then more people would try new OSs. With the current situation I am a little hesitant to re-program my new phones (and I’m braver about such things than most people).
One of the many problems with the current situation is that the phone vendor has to officially support every phone OS. One example of the problems with this is the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 which is a fine piece of hardware that has been saddled with an older version of Android for it’s entire life, Sony has stated that they won’t produce any more updates and thus the demand for this phone is a lot lower than it might be. I believe that this is why the Xperia X10 is significantly cheaper than any other phone with similar features. Sony is losing money because they have a closed hardware platform and don’t support the recent versions of Android!
Ways of Booting the OS
It shouldn’t be a technical challenge to have support for basic touch-screen IO and 3G Internet access in the boot loader of the phone. Then an OS such as Android could be loaded from the network before being booted without needing an older version of Android running. 80386 systems with a few megs of RAM used to be able to boot from a LAN, a modern phone has much more powerful hardware and a network connection that’s at least as good as 10base2 networking so it should be able to do the same.
Modern phones have micro-SD cards for local storage. There’s no reason why the OS couldn’t be loaded on micro-SD card. Fixing the OS on a phone that was “bricked” could be achieved by putting the micro-SD card in a PC and then copying the files across – just as I often fix PC OS problems by installing the hard drive in a working system.
Changing the OS of a phone should be easier than changing a PC between Ubuntu and Fedora (the Linux distributions that seem to have the most usage by less technical users).
If Sony had made their platform the hardware then they could have spent their effort on what they do well (making great phone hardware) and delegated almost all of the work related to creating the OS to other companies (Google, MS, telcos, etc).
If the entire industry moved to a hardware platform for phones then the result would be lower prices and some thin margins for manufacturers. This would be good for users and OK for manufacturers. The current situation however is quite bad for users who can never get phones to do exactly what they want and not so good for phone manufacturers such as Nokia (and everyone else who does business with Microsoft) who find themselves on the wrong side of market forces. The phone as a hardware platform shouldn’t be too bad for Microsoft either, they did OK on the PC hardware platform.