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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

How open source is shaking up the mobile browser market

[part 4 of the series on five traits of open source and its impact in the mobile industry. See also part 1, part 2 and part 3.]

Open source in mobile goes far beyond the confines of Linux-based operating systems for mobile phones. Examples are Sun s Java, Motorola s MIDP3 project, Microsoft s Shared Source Initiative, Symbian s use of open source, Adobe s project Tamarin, Nokia s S60 web browser, Funambol s MDM server, the Eclipse Foundation s open source development tools and the rising interest in open source hardware.

One of the biggest disruptions created by open source is in the case of mobile browsers. Since 2003, the mobile browser market had been dominated by three heavyweights, Openwave, Teleca (Obigo) and ACCESS (in addition to in-house browsers used by major OEMs). These companies had been responsible for the majority of mobile browsers shipped, while few manufacturers most notably Nokia had not only been sourcing browsers from third parties but also developing their own browser software in-house.

However, in the last few years, the browser market has been facing a number of challenges, namely: – mobile browser per-unit royalties have been continually dropping, following the trend of software commoditisation. It is believed that browsers for mass-market phones today sell at a few pence per device. – mobile browsers are inherently complex software, which have to cope with rendering malformed HTML (often called street HTML ), the numerous evolving W3C standards around HTML, CSS and ECMAScript and the proprietary vendor extensions (e.g. rendering pages designed for Internet Explorer). – as operator walled gardens are opening mobile devices are being exposed to the wilderness of billions web (HTML) pages, as opposed to thousands of simplified WAP pages that we previously the norm. The complexity and diversity of these web pages have called for advanced browsers, which typically take years to iteratively mature, as browser vendor Opera attests. – the differentiating features of mobile browsers lie not in the HTML parsing and the rendering engine, but in the value-added features, such as intelligent zoom and navigation.

As these pressures were mounting, a critical point was reached in May 2007; within the space of one week, mobile browser vendor Teleca announced that it halted investments into renewal of Obigo product , while Openwave announced it was up for sale following a 50% tumble of its share price in 12 months. The industry impact has been significant, given that the Openwave and Obigo browser families have claimed the lion s share of the mobile browser market.

Behind the scenes, this blow to the mobile browser business was struck primarily by Nokia s S60 WebKit, Nokia s newest browser based on an open source rendering and scripting engine for web pages. While business execution errors may have affected the demise of Obigo and Openwave s business, it is the availability of WebKit, a reliable, open source, core browser engine that essentially drove browser pricing down. Nokia s move towards WebKit also displaced some of its previous browser suppliers who lost a major customer. Furthermore, the open source WebKit has been developed into a first-class browser engine, under the auspices of Nokia, Apple and KDE. The corporate and community backing of WebKit implies that any further efforts to develop proprietary browsers is unlikely to be viable (although Opera and Access are still maintaining their proprietary browser products at the time of writing).

For deeper insights on what went wrong with the browser business see Bye Bye Browser.

– Andreas

[Want to learn more about open source and its impact on the mobile industry? Register for the pre-workshop ‘A Crash Course in Mobile Open Source: Economics, Licensing, Linux, Java and Beyond’ (see here for workshop agenda) delivered by VisionMobile as part of Informa’s Open Source In Mobile conference taking place in Madrid on 17-20 September. Next on this series: Sun s open source Java policy will mean very little for the mobile industry.]

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