Ben Hookway

Feature phones and the RTOS - the ignored 85% of the market

Feature phones and the RTOS - the ignored 85% of the market

[Is mobile technology all about Android, Apple and Symbian? Guest blogger Ben Hookway explains why the other 85% of the market is far more important and dishes out the facts to prove why the death of feature phones and the RTOS has been greatly exaggerated]

Nobody seems to write about feature phones these days. The subject is not very sexy, not very well understood, and the people who contribute products and services to the building of feature phones tend to keep a low profile. The same applies to RTOSes (real-time operating systems) which power most feature phones. On the contrary, the mainstream tech publications breathlessly talk about open OS like Android, Symbian, Apple and WebOS and the smartphones that they power.

RTOS vs OpenOS

I work in business development for Mentor Graphics, maker of the Nucleus RTOS which makes it into 100’s of millions of phones per year. I’ve spent the last 6 years (incl. as CEO of NextDevice, now Mentor) immersed in the business of mass market phones at all levels of the software stack.

Real-time operating systems have low processing and footprint characteristics which make them ideal for powering baseband chips. As a result, RTOSes were for along time the only operating system found on phones and quickly became a key part of the mobile phone technology stack. The key RTOSes today are Mentor Graphics’ Nucleus and ENEA’s OSE, followed by WindRiver’s VxWorks.

Feature phones though are obviously a very large and very important segment of the mobile handset space and reports the death of the RTOS have been greatly exaggerated. Most publicity is around the open OS space at the moment, which tends to eclipse the fact that feature phones and basic phones are the major volume players in this industry. Around 200m smartphones were shipped in 2008 which leaves nearly 1 billion feature or voice phones. Nucleus and OSE are each installed in circa 1.5 billion phones, or circa 32-34% of the devices sold. (see VisionMobile’s 100 million club).

So how did these feature phone software platforms come to be?

Some important facts on the history of feature phones and RTOSes:

– OEM legacy. Feature phones from the big 5 handset OEMs are usually powered by in-house application frameworks which have been developed over 5-10 of years (and over a decade in some cases). They originally ran on the baseband chip of the mobile phone and therefore are designed to run on the real-time operating system (RTOS) which baseband chips run.

– Feature creep. As available processing power on baseband processors increased, the sophistication of the feature phone platforms increased with them. The internal platforms gave birth to additional, more sophisticated features to take advantage of the increased resources.

– The leap to application processors. Today, mid to high end feature phones run separate application processors in order to enable advanced multimedia capability, touchscreens, and so on. We now have feature phones adopting the same chip architecture as smartphones, and this explains why many application processor vendors are keen to have RTOS support on chips previously designated as only supporting high end OSes. The internal feature phone platforms the manufacturers use were designed to run on RTOSes, and therefore you need an RTOS to run on application processor chips so you can run your feature phone platform. Clear?

Indeed, the RTOS based feature phone is far from dead and far from basic. Just consider one of the best selling phones in the UK in 2008 – the Samsung Tocco. Feature phone, touchscreen, advanced multimedia and good pricing and marketing made it a wild success. Indeed there are more and more touchscreen feature phones coming out. The Samsung Jet is a great case in point. It runs an 800MHz processor but is based on a Samsung proprietary OS.

You can also look at the LG Voyager, Neon, Dare, Vu, and the Samsung Behold, and Instinct as top selling feature phones: they are all advanced touchscreen phones powered by OEMs’ in-house RTOS platforms. These Samsung and LG phones make up 5 out of 10 top-selling touchscreen  devices in the US, according to a Nielsen survey.

As it turns out, manufacturers are not using open OSes, but RTOS platforms for their best-selling high-end devices. The death of the feature phone has been greatly exaggerated indeed.

So what is going to keep the RTOS and feature phone important? Why is Android or Symbian not going to overwhelm the market as many analysts predict ?

1. Predictability. OEMs know these platforms inside and out. As a manufacturer, predictable model refresh rate is key. If you are releasing 100 models a year (as some OEMs do) you need to be very, very sure that you are going to hit release dates, otherwise your marketing and financial model breaks down. Internal feature phone platforms are not the greatest software platforms available, but they are far from poor, and crucially they are very, very well known by the internal device development teams building the phones.

2. Cost. RTOSes need less resources – and result in cheaper phones. A feature phone requires less hardware and resources than a smartphone. The BOM is smaller and low cost is important when your main customer is an operator who subsidises the phone for the consumer. For example, Digitimes reports that the overall production costs, including royalty payments and resources, for smartphones are 3-4 times higher than those for high-end multimedia handsets, while smartphones require 3 times more components (link – subscription required)

3. The ubiquity of the Application Environment. Historically, the weakness of the feature phone has been the inability to have a broad set of application available and good post-sales application download experience. App Stores and open APIs has been a key focus for the industry and the high end OSes (Android, OSX, Symbian). However, with the proliferation of application environments like Java, Flash, Qt and web runtime environments, manufacturers and operators can hope for both a diversity of applications – and a first-class App Store experience, thanks to solutions from Qualcomm Plaza, Comverse, Amdocs, Sun, Everypoint and many others.

The hype / shipment paradox
There is an obvious inverse ratio between OS hype and shipments; the high end OSes are commanding the lion’s share of media attention but don’t really ship in big volumes, comparatively speaking. The feature phone application frameworks running on RTOSes get almost zero coverage but are the mainstay of the industry. Behind the scenes, the economic drivers for RTOS based feature phones remain strong for the foreseeable future.

RTOSes and feature phones may indeed emerge as a platform for true mass adoption of mobile services for consumers.

– Ben

[editor’s note: see VisionMobile’s side-by-side comparison of 16 operating systems and application environments, incl. ALP, Flash Lite, Montavista, Nokia S60, BREW, Qtopia, UIQ and Windows Mobile. A stark reminder of how radically has the mobile software landscape changed in the last 3 years]

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