Who will win the race of mobile application runtimes?

[Flash Lite, WebKit, Java ME, Silverlight, Qt, Lua, Python… Research Director Andreas Constantinou takes an analytical look at the new battleground for mobile application runtimes and the struggle for dominance.]

Flash Lite and Java have been quietly penetrating the mobile handset market. Both application runtimes have in a sense shown that openness is not an exclusive privilege of open operating systems, but of the majority of mobile handsets.

A new set of application runtimes have also surfaced in the form of WebKit, Silverlight, Qt and Lua – shifting the battleground for software platforms from the OS level in 2002 up to the application runtime level in 2008.

We have explored the wide range of application runtimes before – but we have recently analysed how the key contenders compare and contrast. The next table lists the commercial, product, licensing and technology terms for seven leading runtimes. I will be discussing this analysis with a panel of industry execs at the Symbian Show on October 22nd in London.

Mobile application runtimes

Java ME is the most pervasive application runtime, installed on approximately 8 out of 10 handsets shipping in 2008/9 by most analyst estimates. Java’s proliferation looks set to continue as Motorola plans to release the MIDP3 source code under an APL2 license by April 2009, which should reduce both fragmentation and the costs of implementing Java ME for handset OEMs.

Adobe’s Flash Lite reached the 500 million installed base mark in May 2008 and looks set to penetrate even further thanks to the zero royalty fees that Adobe has pledged. The exposure of the underlying Flash Lite device integration layer should enable OEMs to develop more tightly integrated and more consistent FL implementations. Nokia has already integrated Flash Lite 3 on the latest S40 6th Edition platform; note that the S40 operating system is on more than half of Nokia’s 40% share of annual handset shipments. The Finnish OEM also plans to integrate Flash Lite more tightly on S60 through Platform Services. Sony Ericsson has also been pushing Flash Lite integration into Java apps through project Capuchin (see earlier analysis).

WebKit has been a surprise in the making during the last 5 years. Although initially developed as the engine to Apple’s Safari desktop browser, the software has been evolved and optimised significantly; Nokia’s mass-market S40 6th edition OS features WebKit, as do Nokia’s S60, Motorola’s WebUI, Adobe’s AIR and Google’s Android.

Silverlight is a newcomer from Microsoft, aiming to compete head-to-head with Flash Lite, and initially expected to appear on Nokia S60 handsets.

Qt presents an interesting riddle. We believe that Qt is Nokia’s technology platform for deploying Ovi services across mobile devices and consumer electronics. Longer term Qt should be forming a platform for Nokia to deploy their own apps and a consistent signature UI environment, although the transition will take 2-3 years to materialise.

Lua is an interesting new contender; it is a scripting language optimised for embedded environments and is known for both its simplicity and flexibility compared to JavaScript. It’s also licensed under the permissive MIT license, which has resulted in it being adopted and embedded into games SDKs and most notably as part of the BREW platform and Qualcomm’s uiOne SDK 2.0 (see details here).

I will be moderating the panel ‘Who will win the Runtime race?’ at the Symbian Show on October 22nd in London. joined by well-respected representatives from Adobe, Microsoft, Nokia, Sun and Symbian:
– Jürgen Scheible, author ‘Mobile Python – Rapid prototyping on the mobile platform’
– Pete Barr-Watson, Senior Business Development/Deployment Manager, Microsoft Silverlight
– Terrence Barr, Senior Technologist and Community Ambassador, Sun Microsystems
– Antony Edwards, VP Developer Product Management, Symbian
– Matt Millar, Director of Mobile and Devices, EMEA, Adobe
– Benoit Schillings, CTO, Trolltech/ Nokia

If you are attending the Symbian Show, do join – I do expect an intense and stimulating debate as we discuss which application runtime will win.

Thanks to Erik Jacobson, Timo Bruns and Terrence Barr for their feedback on the comparative table of application runtimes.

Update: The keynote panel session went well. I did not expect any revelations, especially in front of an audience of 1,000+ people attending the panel. But there was one very interesting announcement at the Show; the role Qt will play for Nokia’s applications, devices and Ovi.

Qt's role for Nokia

This slide, originally from Nokia’s analyst webcast on Qt on Oct 28, is quite revealing. Nokia is planning to use Qt, its cross-platform application environment, to port its own core applications and Ovi services across a broad range of devices. Qt will then be ported onto S60 (as Nokia announced) as well as across the Nokia device portfolio – which includes S40 – as this slide reveals. Naturally, Nokia’s Ovi services should expand to non-Nokia phones and desktop PCs. We predicted this strategy for Qt in earlier research notes here and here, but Nokia is moving much faster than we were expecting.

Another interesting quasi-announcement was that WebKit will be one of the key pillars of the Symbian Foundation efforts, as announced by Lee Williams, the newly appointed head of the Foundation. WebKit is already integrated on Qt, so we should see the Qt + WebKit stack penetrating mobile devices very fast very soon. In the light of these announcements, we have upped our estimates of Qt embeds in 2009 to 50M handsets, assuming S60 starts shipping with Qt from 2H09.

So which application runtime will win? If Google searches is anything to go by, then WebKit is clearly the ‘runtime of the year’ for 2008. As for the foreseeable future, one thing is certain; there will be more runtimes supported by mobile devices, before real consolidation settles in.

Google Trends - runtimes

– Andreas

Why did Nokia really acquire Symbian ?

[Why did Nokia really acquire Symbian for? Research Director Andreas Constantinou digs beyond the surface to analyse why the Symbian deal is about far more than just Ovi and Android].

Question markThe Finns are behind the smartest, longest-reaching strategies the mobile industry has ever seen. Nokia’s pending acquisition of Symbian is no exception. We ‘ve covered the Symbian acquisition in detail before, but here we ‘re piecing together more pieces of the puzzle.

Industry observers will often point to the Ovi strategy as the reason for the Symbian acquisition, i.e. that Nokia wants to control the service delivery layer on top of Symbian handsets (incl. ones from competing OEMs), on top of which Ovi will sit. But’s there’s lots more to it than Ovi.

Others observe that the acquisition and Symbian’s new open source (EPL) roadmap and zero royalty pledge are Nokia’s response to Android. I would argue, that Android is not the reason WHY Nokia is moving to acquire Symbian, but WHEN it chose to do so; Royalty levels and governance of source code access is something the Symbian board can change anytime it wishes to, and it has in the past. The timing of the acquisition announcement (six months after Android was unveiled) may be why many details on the governance rules of the Symbian Foundation were not finalised at the time of the press release – including IP ownership, who has the right to commit to the codebase, the plans on S60 phones for Japan and the membership fees for OEMs.

But there’s many more benefits that Nokia reaps from the Symbian acquisition:

Nokia reduces the cost of developing the Symbian OS. We know that the Symbian Foundation will be responsible for “coordinating development projects and managing the master code line”. Estimating that the Symbian Foundation may need 200 staff for managing membership and babysitting the codebase, this implies $20M OPEX, which shared being the 5 OEM members means $4M annually for Nokia. Assuming Nokia will also inherit another 500 Symbian employees (i.e. the rest of Symbian minus non-overlapping functions) from the acquisition, this makes another $50M million OPEX. In total, Nokia’s OPEX costs should be around the $60M mark, or about 50 percent of the royalty fees ($2.5per unit) it was paying to Symbian to for 60+ million S60 phones a year. So Nokia’s OPEX for developing Symbian drops to about half with the acquisition. This is largely dependent on how many Symbian engineers Nokia will retain, and 500 is a large number, knowing that other OSes need 100-200 engineers to develop a core OS (Rubin’s Android team had 100 staff back in 2007, according to a VC – note: the post has been retracted, but you can still find it within Google Reader).

to further its S60 strategy. Nokia’s S60 has always been about extending the Finns’ control of mobile service delivery beyond its own 40 percent of the market – albeit a strategy that hasn’t bore fruit, given that LG and Samsung have released very few S60 models at low volumes compared to Nokia. The Symbian acquisition displaces UIQ and MOAP, since the majority of the Symbian Foundation code will be formed from S60 and Symbian with “selected UIQ and MOAP(S) technologies integrated” (see whitepaper). The result: Nokia’s own S60 will be used as the UI layer by SEMC, Motorola, who were previously using UIQ and MOAP(S).

to further outpace other OEMs in producing smartphones. As explained, SEMC and Motorola will have to switch from UIQ (which was only selling circa 1M phones a year) to S60. This means it’s going to be 2-3 years before they can compete with Nokia’s speed of launching new handset models in the market. No doubt, both SEMC and Motorola will be looking at alternatives. Nokia essentially outpaces the rest of the OEMs in producing more smartphones to market, with more models, more quickly and more cheaply than anyone else.

to more effectively control the Symbian roadmap. Symbian’s past governance structure meant that the software roadmap is controlled by the board of directors, with Nokia having just under 50% share of ownership. Boards tend to be very process-heavy and time-consuming vehicles for software governance, so I ‘m assuming that Nokia did have a strong say, but in a coarse and long-winded manner. Instead with the Symbian Foundation, Nokia will be contributing the Symbian+S60 codebase, to be licensed under an EPL open source license. Our experience with sponsored open source projects is that control is granted to the commercial entity who dedicates the most engineers to code maintenance. Even if participants can fork the code, they are not incentivised to do so, given that a centre of gravity of contributions forms around the biggest contributing entity; for example, Nokia went on record to say that they shouldn’t have forked WebKit from Apple’s codebase. Assuming that Nokia will be putting most engineers to work on the Symbian Foundation code (way over 1,000, if you add the internal S60 staff), there will be little incentive for any OEM to fork (even if the Foundation governance model permits this, which is unknown at this time).

to cement Nokia’s economies of scale in producing differentiated handsets. In open source projects, the commoditised software base is licensed under an OSI license, while differentiation remains closed source (Maemo, Eclipse and WebKit are good examples). Applied to the Symbian Foundation this implies that SEMC, Motorola, LG and Samsung will still have to differentiate on top of S60, but Nokia will no longer have to manage this differentiating layer on their behalf (it would have limited incentive to do so). Therefore Nokia will have much better economies of scale at producing differentiated handsets compared to the other tier-1 OEMs who will need to develop and manage a UI differentiation layer on their own.

to marginalise Microsoft away from consumer phones and ODMs. The zero price point for running royalties also makes Windows Mobile way more expensive (based on $6 per unit price according to Nomura), for both consumer phones, and especially for ODMs who have tiny margins. With Nokia recently licensing Exchange server connectivity across all of its S60 phones, this makes Nokia a credible competitor for the enterprise segment, too.

Clearly, the Symbian acquisition has been a very smart move by Nokia indeed.

– Andreas

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