The year 2013 will see the introduction of yet another new smartphone OS - this one put out by the parent company of the Firefox internet browser, Mozilla. Although devices that actually run the company's operating system will not appear in the United States until 2014, the Firefox OS is expected to be ready for smartphones as early as June of this year.
Yet, while consumers typically prefer to have a choice, sometimes too many options can lead to confusion, and ultimately frustration. This, then, leads to the question of just how many operating systems, at a given instance, can the global mobile market realistically support? The answer may soon be determined.
How Much Is Really Enough?
While the battle between iPhone and Android has been brewing for quite some time now, we tend to forget how many players there really are in the smartphone OS arena. In addition to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) with iOS and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) with Android, this growing field also includes the likes of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) with its Windows Phone, as well as the famed BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) BB10.
What many consumers may not be aware of are the up and coming potential competitors like Tizen (a potential OS for use by Samsung), and Ubuntu, a Linux-based OS for phones. And, lest we forget the former Operating Systems -- including the long gone Palm's WebOS.
Let History Be Your Guide
Although the multitude of choice in the OS arena offers some competitiveness, what the system makers need to keep in mind is the ultimate fate of yesterday's PC market, and that it is likely that the mobile OS marketplace, similarly, will not support numerous mobile OS concurrently either now or in the future.
Just as with most big markets, in fact, the PC world eventually settled on two key players - one being Microsoft with the lion's share, and the other being Apple. Although even as the second place holder, Apple market share of the overall PC market never entered the double-digit numbers up until just a decade or so ago.
For those who may feel that they are seeing a déjà vu here - they are. In fact, similar to the eventual dominance of Windows that emerged throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, today the smartphone and mobile device world is seeing a dramatic surge in the popularity of Android, which presently accounts for roughly three-fourth of the market today. Apple with less than 20% share of the OS market is holding firmly to second place.
OS Applications Could Cause Some Limitations
When it comes to simple supply and demand, though, the total number of operating systems really is somewhat limited - primarily by the development of applications, otherwise known as apps. And, while more apps can certainly equal more choice and convenience for the ultimate consumer, more doesn't always mean better.
In order to accommodate for more usable applications, some companies such as BlackBerry and Microsoft have taken to paying upfront for their development - with BlackBerry offering up to $10,000 to app developers prior to the recent launch of its BB10 OS.
Operating Systems May Soon Be History
Given the extent of the competition, there is another burning question on the minds of both consumers and developers alike, and that is how much in the future will the actual operating system performing on the device really matter?
Today, with the mish-mash of systems and browsers, most consumers are really only concerned with convenience, choice, and proper operation - and this goes for even the most brand loyal of users. With this in mind, there could be some plans in the works for making overall improvements that could lessen app ecosystem weaknesses, while similarly undermining the need to pay for exclusive operating systems - regardless of which type of device is owned.
Share Price Effect of the OS Key Players
As far as investors are concerned, no matter what apps are being offered, it is share price that tells the tale as far as profits go. Apple's stock has had its share of ups and downs over the past 12 months - mostly down - from the low $700s to just over $425. And, while some may think that this represents a potential value for incoming investors, there's nothing to say that share price won't slip even further - especially if Apple's iOS starts lagging even further behind Android.
Likewise, Google's shares have also bounced around considerably over the past year - currently hovering near its 12-month high point. Given this, as an investor who is considering either of these two giants, it may be best to hold off - at least until these companies' third quarter financials are made available.
Groundhog Day for Smartphones
There are some analysts who feel that Google's Android will have the OS marketplace in the palm of its hand - following in the footsteps of the Microsoft Windows story of the past. And, if all goes according to plan, Android could essentially make it much more difficult for other OS developers to compete in the marketplace.
That being said, it may be wise to wait before totally committing to jumping on the Android bandwagon, especially in light of the fact that there is a possibility that if Mozilla's Firefox OS - which runs as a browser versus an actual OS - can replace operating systems overall with HTML5. If this turns out to be the case, the choice of mobile OSs won't really even matter. And this could make a tremendous difference for both developers and investors alike.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.