Lately, we asked if it were possible for Europe to have a dominant smartphone again. The answer was simple: no, unless there is some kind of miracle.
The reason for this is multiple, but the main point is that it’s borderline impossible for European companies to create a good enough phone to be successful at a low enough price point, given that Asia accounts for the majority of the world’s mobile device manufacturing bases houses.
But here at TNW, we had another question: could Europe launch its own mobile operating system?
Why do we need a European mobile operating system?
At first glance, an excellent idea. A European operating system could wrest some power from Silicon Valley giants iOS and Android. Also, no factories or raw materials would be required as the software could be developed on the continent itself.
Let’s not forget, then, that Europe is at the forefront of digital privacy regulation with initiatives like this GDPR And strict data scraping laws Enforcing civil rights against data-hungry US tech giants.
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A European mobile operating system could then be used to ensure people’s privacy at the highest level and extend an element of control over the tech ecosystem. The latter point is particularly important because not only do Apple and Google control the apps that appear on their platforms, they do too take massive revenue cuts from publishers. That’s an amazing amount of power and income – all of which the EU could use.
But… is a European operating system even possible?
To find out, I contacted several experts. One of them was Jan Stryjak, deputy director at counterpoint research. He leads the analyst firm’s research in Europe and has more than 13 years of experience in the telecommunications, media and technology industries.
The first thing he told me was that there was no place in the market for a new European – or indeed any other – mobile operating system. “Two is enough,” he says, referring to iOS and Android. There have been attempts in the past to make Windows a third dominant mobile operating system, but these have failed. While Windows mobile And Symbian had their days in the sun, Android and iOS both crowded out.
“It’s not working,” Stryjak says of the possibility of another operating system joining Apple’s and Google’s mobile operating systems. Well, there goes that dream.
As I further pressed Stryjak on the chances of something like this, the only potential he saw was for “the really niche tech population that cares about privacy.”
Let’s talk about the third option
I discussed this privacy issue with Wayne Huang, VP of Product Operations at Fairphone. His company develops devices that aim to be sustainable and carbon neutral, with the goal of making repairable devices that give energy back to the consumer.
One of Fairphone’s core customer segments is the very tech niche that cares about privacy. When I asked how this option was expressed on their devices, Huang pointed it out to me Fairphone’s partnership with the /e/ Foundationin particular the Linux-based mobile operating system /e/OS.
In 2020, /e/OS was chosen as the alternative operating system for the Fairphone 3.
Fairphone users can install the privacy-first /e/OS, an open-source operating system that does not track user data. Despite this, Android apps can still be used on the platform, and /e/OS will warn you about any built-in trackers they provide.
Huang couldn’t give me any numbers on how many people are using /e/OS on Fairphone devices. The next character I found is from Gaël Duval, the creator of the system. 2021, he claimed overall there are “between 25,000 and 35,000 users of /e/OS”.
for context, There are over a billion iOS users — and that doesn’t include other Apple operating systems.
So what we’ve found is a pretty harsh ceiling for a privacy-focused mobile operating system. Currently this is a niche option for niche devices. Yes, it could potentially grow and attract a healthy number of users, but that approach likely won’t challenge the dominance of Android and iOS.
Instead, as Stryjak explained to me, a new operating system on mobile devices will at best resemble Linux on desktop computers: something that attracts a loyal following but doesn’t make it into the mainstream.
However, ending things there is boring. We need to finish this thought experiment and really calculate what would happen if Europe developed its own mobile operating system.
time to pretend
Suppose that several EU Member States disregard the above. You think the experts are wrong: there Is Room for a third major mobile operating system and they should be the ones to make it. What happens then?
Well, one thing is for sure: it won’t be a cakewalk.
“I’ve had a number of phone calls with European commissioners… where they brought up a Linux system and asked if they could develop something like that,” Huang tells TNW. “The challenge is that it’s difficult to get everyone together to work toward that goal.”
Let’s not forget that the EU is made up of 27 individual nations, each with different cultures and agendas. Getting countries more skeptical of big governments and censorship on board with a European operating system will be hard to sell.
Yes, you could argue that it would help further the bloc’s focus on digital privacy and hold tech giants accountable, but it is not that the EU as it is is struggling to have an impact.
But let’s imagine the EU somehow manages to get every nation to agree that a European mobile operating system is actually a fantastic idea. The topic skips the invasion of Ukraine, sustainability, gas prices and inflation The Urgent matter in the European Parliament. So what?
The technical difficulties
Counterpoint’s Stryjak tells TNW that the first major problem a European mobile operating system would face is how it would isolate the continent from the rest of the planet.
“The world is getting bigger, but at the same time getting closer,” he tells TNW. For almost every function in modern society, “you need interoperability within Europe and other markets.” In other words, software has to work with other software or things will collapse.
Stryjak has been active in European telecommunications for more than 15 years.
If a European mobile operating system were created, it would require an incredible amount of work to make it work with existing apps and functionalities around the world.
Think of it this way: Would you switch to a phone that didn’t have a native Gmail app? Or Twitter? tick tock? Instagram? It would take an inordinate amount of time just for these companies to port their software – and they are some of the best equipped companies in the world.
Imagine how long it would take smaller businesses to port all the apps you might need for work or life. It would be an undertaking on a galactic scale.
Achieving the “same functionality of Samsung and Apple [phones] would take many iterations to get there,” Stryjak continues. And honestly? People aren’t willing to wait until software gets good. They want it to work and they want it to work now.
And then we have the political problems
To continue this thought experiment, let’s assume this magical European mobile operating system manages to overcome these development hurdles and makes every engineer and programmer focus on making their software and hardware work perfectly with this new system. So what?
“If there is a Europe-specific operating system, can it be run in Russia or China?” asks Stryjak. The focus of this system is likely to be GDPR enforcement and digital privacy. So could it be used in places where these regulations are not as strict?
The answer is probably no.
You only have to look the privacy riot around HarmonyOS and Huawei’s troubles with the US to get a sense of how countries outside of Europe would react to a state-supported operating system. In short, bad.
If the EU somehow managed to get its member states to agree on developing a mobile operating system, it would likely be underserved, compete for users, and be banned in various countries around the world.
To put it another way, it would be pretty useless.
But does it even need a European mobile operating system?
Getting back to the heart of the piece, the answer is similar to that of the hardware: no, not really.
The EU has been one of the biggest drivers of digital privacy and while it could do more if it were in control of its own operating system, in reality it already has a huge impact on technological privacy. As long as the block contains such a large and wealthy user base, it will continue to have some sort of impact on Silicon Valley.
In a dream world, a European mobile operating system could improve many things, but in reality? useless.