It's Time To Make Phone OSes Work On Any Phone

VMWare is making noise about smartphone virtualization again, claiming their new system will run two operating systems at once, sorta. It's a compelling idea! But even more, it's a reminder: Why the hell can't we choose our smartphone's OS, again?

When you buy a PC, the most important decision you make is selecting its OS. Do you want Windows 7, for a modern Windows machine-slash-media center? Are you a little more conservative, hanging back with Windows XP? Do you want a lightweight Linux OS on your netbook so you don't have to worry about viruses, or slowdown? Are you a Gentoo purist, building your OS flag by flag, penguin shirt moist from excitement? Or, god forbid, are you a hackintosher? Whatever choice you make, you're making a choice. You're selecting the interface with which you interact with your computer, and by extension, the entire digital world. This makes sense.

But this just isn't how things work in the mobile world. If you want Windows Mobile, you need to buy a Windows Phone, complete with a dedicated Start button. If you want Google's Android, you've got a narrow selection of handsets from a handful of manufacturers, many of which, at least for now, don't even support the same version of the OS. If you think webOS looks cool, buy a Pre. If you like Symbian, import a Nokia or settle for a Samsung. And most predictably, if you like the App Store, Apple—and only Apple—is ready to process your credit card. Like the Touch HD2's obscenely hot hardware, but don't care for Windows Mobile? Tough luck. Think the Droid is a perfect piece of machinery, but don't understand what all this Android hubbub is about? Shut up.

In the last half-decade, we've become acutely aware of what goes into our smartphones. New phones get a spec rundown that mirrors a PC's: Qualcomm processor X! RAM speed Y! Screen technology Z! It fosters a climate ripe for PC-style hardware wars, with new processor architectures competing head to head, an ongoing—and fruitful—resolution race, and each new phone edging out its predecessors with even more onboard storage, or support for a new input or output cable. It's fascinating to watch the competition unfold, but it's even more fascinating to see how tightly grouped development is. These are ARM-based phones, for the most part. They share memory types, display types, cameras, chipsets, processors and often, original device manufacturers. They're the same thing.

When you buy a smartphone, you're stuck with its OS. Your carrier might toss you a few software updates, and if you're particularly gutsy, you might install some custom-baked software of your own, though you're generally stuck with slight variations on and customizations of the handet's default OS. It's as if everyone in the mobile world is emulating what Apple does in the computer space, except worse: at least Macs have Boot Camp, for fuck's sake. (And before they did, they had the PowerPC excuse.)

I know something like this is miles over the horizon—you can't just will new hardware support into existence, and the entire industry is currently built around the bound relationship between software and hardware—and that some hardware (guess which!) is probably doomed to live out its entire life in a hollow monogamous relationship, but it's time for handset manufacturers, along with Google, Microsoft, the Symbian Foundation, and Palm, maybe, to start setting goals. Or at minimum, it's time for us to start asking them to.

For the companies, this would mean working on driver support for common componentry, opening up to the enthusiast communities who already do so much amazing software work on their own, and agreeing on some kind of common bootloader, from which users can choose to install their operating system.

For users, this would mean freedom. Going into 2010, our smartphones are more central to our lives than ever, and it's time to acknowledge that. Consumers treat smartphones like computers. The people who make them, though, treat them like dumbphones; prepackaged products, artificially limited for no good reason—at least, no good reason to the people who buy them.