Will a new Motorola OS rival Android and iOS?

Motorola is rumored to be working on a new phone OS, but can it really challenge a market dominated by Apple and Google?

Motorola Mobility is buying up experienced cell phone engineers, says a report from InformationWeek, and there are strong rumors the company is working on an entirely new mobile operating system. Last year Motorola was rumored to have purchased Linux mobile specialists Azingo, too.

There's no details of what Motorola might or might not have in mind although the chances are it'll be a scalable solution for all levels of user. Last year, Engadget quoted Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha as saying, "Owning your OS is important; provided you have an ecosystem, you have all the services and you have an ability and the scale to execute on keeping that OS at the leading edge".

It might be that the new staff are to work on Wophone, a Linux-based operating system recently launched in China intended to rival Apple iOS and Google Android. This features on handsets manufactured by Motorola (amongst others), and there could be an effort afoot to localize it for western users.

But introducing any new operating system would be a brave move in a market that's maturing and which is dominated by Apple iOS and Google's Android, especially bearing in mind that one-time main player Symbian is in the process of crashing and burning. Even Microsoft can't get much of a toe-hold, despite producing arguably its best mobile OS ever.

Just like with the desktop OS market in the late 80s and early 90s, the mobile phone operating system market is consolidating into two main players: Android and iOS. It's too early to call winners but the high prices and exclusive market positioning of Apple might mean it's set to nip at the heels of Google's Android OS which, licensed out to just about any manufacturer that wants it, will probably dominate. Again, this would mirror the state of the desktop OS market.

Whatever it has planned, Motorola would be foolish if it didn't build on top of Linux. It already has significant experience in this area. There's a sophisticated, established and essentially free of charge toolchain to create the basics of a mobile Linux OS, and a lot of expertise available for hire.

What they build on top of the Linux kernel, however, is entirely up to them. Motorola is in the delicate position of guessing how we'll all work in a few years' time and, for the first time since the 1980s, new and disruptive technologies mean almost anything is possible.

Motorola could build an operating system that lives in the cloud, for example--something like a cell phone version of Google Chrome OS. iOS and Android are arguably too mature to be retooled for true cloud integration, even though they were created from the ground-up to always be online.

A cloud OS could feature applications that are accessed online, with an expectation that user data will live there too. This could significantly reduce the costs of the phone (those 8, 16 and 32GB chunks of flash memory are one of the biggest), although the cost arguably would be transferred elsewhere for the user, who would pay higher cellular data charges. Whatever the case, the issue of overstretched cellular bandwidth is still an issue, so this would be a difficult case to make to consumers.

Motorola could try and create a social networking-enabled OS but that's old hat nowadays, and a handful of phone vendors have been bitten by similar attempts. The Microsoft Kin is a lighthouse warning others of that particular treacherous harbor. A social-based OS could also limit the potential market because people tend to associate the term "social networking" with teenagers.

And what if a new technology comes along that turns Facebook and Twitter into MySpace graveyard companions?

How about an OS that lets a phone act as a cloud gateway and laptop hybrid? That sounds like science fiction but Motorola already has experience with its Android-based Atrix phone. This product initially looked promising but we here at PC World found it a little lacking. A key feature of the Atrix is that it can drive a standard desktop monitor and includes a Citrix client that connects to a Xen desktop server by which a Windows desktop can be accessed. I've previously speculated that this could lead to a new way of working and it might be that, with the Atrix phone, Motorola engineers realized they'd stretched Android in ways it isn't designed for. Hence the need for a new operating system.

If I had to place a bet, the latter theory is where my money would go. However, the truth will probably be duller: Motorola might mistakenly believe a mobile OS of its own, that ostensibly aped Android and iOS. will give it a unique selling point. Corporations are prone to delusional bursts of ego such as this. The fact is that most buyers looking for smartphones right now are happy to choose between Android and Apple products.

Keir Thomas has been making known his opinion about computing since the last century. His latest Kindle ebooks have just gone on sale . You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com . His Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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