We’ve been buying mobile phones for a long time now and we’ve always assumed that the phone comes with its OS. But it’s common knowledge that you can easily update the software that comes with your phone. Take the case of any popular mobile OS – Android, iOS or Windows Phone. They are always updated and can be easily upgraded in minutes by connecting to a PC, or sometimes wirelessly. As a consumer, how would it be if you were given the option to buy a phone and choose what operating system you wanted to use on it? How different would it be than the way it is with computers and notebooks? Of course, there are a whole bunch of benefits with such a setup, and there’s likely to be downsides to it as well.

Let’s try to reflect on the idea. As a smartphone user, when you purchase a phone, you’re stuck with a single operating system. After some time, you realise that your manufacturer doesn’t provide you with updates, or maybe you want to switch to a newer update. Many a times, there’s also the urge to switch to a completely different platform, but this means buying a new phone.

What if phones came without an OS?

A phone without any operating system is likely to be cheaper than a phone that comes bundled with a commercial OS such as Windows Phone or iOS. So, you might find phones that are priced at a good 15 to 25 percent lower than the market norm. You also get the option to choose the operating system of your liking. Come to think of it, this kind of scenario is already present. Look around for a decent Android phone such as the Galaxy Nexus. It’s been one of Google’s reference phones all this while and there’re plenty of ROMs and customisations available for it. The process to get one of these custom ROMs installed on the phone is a little complicated for the layman, but once you have that done, putting a new update in place takes no more than a few minutes.

A variety of choices exist, but it involves purchasing a brand new phone

A variety of choices exist, but it involves purchasing a brand new phone

Now, assume that the Galaxy Nexus we just spoke about a while back – a phone priced at just under Rs. 20,000 – didn’t come with any OS. Assume that the reference design was available from any phone manufacturer of your choice. Of course, the manufacturer can bundle in accessories or better build quality and you could choose whose phone you’d like to buy. On this phone, imagine being given the freedom to install any OS – Google’s stock Android 4.2 OS or one of the many custom ROMs or even, hypothetically, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8, Ubuntu Linux or Firefox OS on it.

But for this scenario to happen, certain things are needed. There needs to be a reference phone or reference hardware design that every manufacturer would have to agree on and follow. The more varied the devices, the more bloated the operating system would have to be—to accommodate the drivers and software for the different components. This means an incredible amount of effort is required from the software development community merely to support all of the devices in the market. Hardware and software developers would have to ensure that the hardware is compatible with the software as much as possible.

It’s already happening?

This kind of scenario is already happening. Take Microsoft’s Windows OS for instance; it’s probably the best example of this system in action. Windows supports a variety of hardware, but this also makes it very bulky and somewhat inefficient. The x86 architecture has been at the heart of Windows for a long time. Intel recently entered the market with its Medfield powered phones, the Lava Xolo and Motorola’s RAZR i, with limited success. With the right drivers, these phones could very well run Windows on them. The advantage, however, is that pretty much any x86 compliant software could run on these devices. This means if you bought an x86 phone, you could technically be able to run Android (which is also available for x86 devices), Linux or Windows on it. Of course, there have to be drivers for the touchscreen, the radio component and a bunch of other things to work properly.

This change would mean that you as a customer would have many more options to choose from. You could possibly just buy a phone and have a wide choice of ROMs to choose from—possibly hundreds of operating systems. You could even be able to switch between multiple operating systems the same way as you dual-boot between operating systems on a PC. We’ve even tried and seen that it’s possible on an Android phone. This is probably what the mobile industry needs to do next if it wants to innovate. It’ll help phone manufacturers focus their efforts while the consumer gets what he wants. It’ll also help the mobile software development scene grow at a ridiculous pace.

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