operating systems

A mobile OS war looms in Asia

March 13, 2014: 10:55 AM ET

Can America's mightiest tech companies dominate the Asian market? Not if companies in China and Korea have anything to say about it.

By Erik Heinrich

140313104742-mobile-phone-asia-mom-child-use-620xa

FORTUNE -- Rivals to Google's (GOOG) Android and Apple's (AAPL) iOS operating systems have emerged in Asia, suggesting that a fierce global war over dominance in mobile computing is imminent.

The first contender for shaking up the world's $341.4-billion mobile handset market is the China Operating System (COS), developed jointly by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and private-sector partner Liantong Network Communications Technology.

The second up-and-comer with similarly large ambitions is Tizen, developed by South Korean electronics giant Samsung with a consortium of partners that includes U.S. microchip giant Intel (INTC), Japan's Fujitsu, China's Huawei, and European mobile carrier Vodafone (VOD). Samsung not only wants Tizen to become as big a brand name as Google's Android and Apple's iOS, it also wants to see its software used in cars, smart appliances, and televisions.

Both COS and Tizen will likely be released in the second quarter; China Telecom and China Mobile are currently testing the COS platform, and Samsung recently launched a Tizen digital camera in South Korea.

MORE: In four years, Asia's share of Apple's revenue stream grew 62%, Europe's shrank 39%

American companies have a near-monopoly over the software that powers mobile communication. Do the two Asian entrants have what it takes to mount a full-frontal assault on their dominance? COS and Tizen have the potential to deliver a serious blow to the fortunes of both Android and iOS -- despite the fact that these two global monsters have a seemingly unshakeable lock on 96% of the market.

Google's Android is particularly vulnerable to a competing OS because it's used by a long list of original equipment manufacturers who could drop Android like a hot potato if a better OS comes along.

Consider that five out of the top seven smartphones sold in China are made by Chinese companies: Lenovo, Huawei, Yulong, Xiaomi, and ZTE. If they were all to switch from Android to COS -- say, with a little persuasion from the Chinese government on grounds of national security -- then Android could be shut out of one of the world's biggest wireless markets virtually overnight.

Still, conquering China will be an uphill battle. "Some of the vendors may do one or two devices if pressured by the government," says Sandy Shen, research director in Gartner's Shanghai office, "but they cannot afford to lose market share or suffer losses only to support the Chinese OS."

MORE: Are Android 'TV sticks' eating into Apple's tablet market share?

Analysts also question the capabilities of Shanghai-based Liantong Network Communications, which led development of the Linux-based COS. "It was established in 2012 with less than 150 people," says Gene Cao, a senior analyst with Forrester Research in Beijing. "It takes time for a new OS to improve stability, which normally needs hundreds of version updates like Android."

Meanwhile Samsung's strategic advantage is that fact that it makes 63% of all Android-powered smartphones and tablets on the market today. If it were to put its full weight behind Tizen, Google stands to lose more than half its Android customers.

"I don't think Samsung will abandon Android in favor of Tizen because its flagship Galaxy smartphones are practically equated with Android," says Ramon Llamas, research manager with IDC's mobile phone team in Framingham, Mass. "To switch them over to Tizen, or any other operating system, risks alienating its core user base. I expect Samsung to offer Tizen-powered smartphones alongside its Android-powered ones."

It's possible that analysts underestimate the raw ambition of the Asian newcomers. For example, the group behind COS claims to have fixed many bugs in the original Linux kernel, including security risks that render foreign-made operating systems like Android vulnerable to surveillance and data theft. With the new enhancements, and an online app store in development, COS is betting it can become the OS of choice for Chinese home computers and smartphones.

MORE: Why Apple remains king of the mobile game

Samsung has even more ambitious plans for Tizen. In addition to using it across all its consumer electronics, including wearable devices, the company is talking to Toyota and Jaguar Land Rover about bringing Tizen to automobiles. It also wants Tizen to become the OS of choice in emerging markets, like India and Indonesia, where demand for cheaper smartphones has exploded.

There will be winners and losers in the showdown for world domination coming to mobile computing. It's America vs. Asia -- and the stakes could not be higher.

  • Are operating systems a dying breed?

    As the launch of Windows 7 approaches, one executive ponders the relevance of the OS.

    By Richard Muirhead, chairman and CEO, Tideway Systems

    The perception is that operating systems are dying. In truth, they are evolving.

    For years we've witnessed wars waged among major operating system vendors, with computer purchases hanging in the balance. Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows was a household name for people who didn't know what an operating system was, its popularity MORE

    Oct 15, 2009 11:00 AM ET
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.