Recently, We asked if it were possible for Europe to have a dominant smartphone again. The answer was simple: no, not unless there is some sort of miracle.
The reason behind this is multi-faceted, but the main point is that because Asia is home to the majority of the world’s mobile manufacturing facilities, it’s almost impossible for European companies to make a good enough phone at a low enough price to pass.
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?
On initial inspection, it’s an excellent idea. A European operating system could regain some of the power of Silicon Valley giants iOS and Android. Also, the use of factories or raw materials would not be necessary, as the software could be developed in the continent itself.
Then let’s not forget that Europe has been at the forefront of digital privacy regulation, with initiatives such as the AVG And strict data erasure laws enforcing citizens’ rights against data-hungry US technology giants.
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A European mobile operating system could then be used to ensure the highest level of privacy for people and extend an element of control over the tech ecosystem. That last point is especially important, because not only do Apple and Google control the apps that appear on their platforms, they do too make huge cutbacks from publishers. That is a staggering amount of power and income – all of which the EU could use.
But… is a European operating system possible?
To find out, I contacted several experts. One of them was Jan Stryjak, an associate director at Counterpoint research. He leads the analyst firm’s research in Europe and has over 13 years of experience in the telecommunications, media and technology industries.
The first thing he told me was that there was no room in the market for a new European – or any other – mobile operating system. “Two is enough,” he says, referring to iOS and Android. Attempts have been made in the past to make Windows a third dominant mobile operating system, but failed. While Windows Mobile And Symbian had their days in the sun, Android and iOS both fizzled out.
“It doesn’t work,” Stryjak tells me of the possibility of another operating system joining Apple’s and Google’s mobile operating systems. Well, there goes that dream.
When I pressed Stryjak further on the chances of something like this, the only potential he saw was something for “the really niche tech population that cares about privacy”.
Let’s talk about the third option
I discussed this topic of privacy with Wayne Huang, VP of Product Operations at Fairphone. His company makes devices that want to be sustainable and climate neutral, with the aim of making repairable devices that return power to the consumer.
One of Fairphone’s most important customer segments is precisely the tech niche that cares about privacy. When I asked him how this option manifested itself on their devices, Huang pointed it out to me Fairphone’s collaboration with the /e/ Foundationspecifically the Linux-based mobile operating system /e/OS.
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 numbers on how many people use /e/OS on Fairphone devices. The closest figure I found came from Gaël Duval, the creator of the system. 2021, he claimed there are “between 25,000 and 35,000 users of /e/OS” in total.
For context, there are over a billion iOS users – and that doesn’t apply to other Apple operating systems.
So what we’ve found is a pretty hard ceiling for a privacy-focused mobile operating system. Currently this is a niche option for niche devices. Yes, it could grow and attract a healthy number of users, but this approach is unlikely to challenge the dominance of Android and iOS.
Instead, as Stryjak explained to me, a new operating system on mobile devices will likely be similar to Linux on desktop computers: something that attracts a devoted fanbase but fails to reach the mainstream.
Ending things there is boring though. We need to take this thought experiment to a logical conclusion and really find out what would happen if Europe developed its own mobile operating system.
Time to pretend
Suppose several EU member states ignore the above. They 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?
One thing is certain: it will not be plain sailing.
“I’ve had a number of conversations with European commissioners… where they brought up a Linux system and asked if they could make something like that,” Huang tells TNW. “The challenge is that it’s hard to get everyone together to work towards this goal.”
Let’s not forget that the EU is made up of 27 separate countries, all with different cultures and agendas. Countries that are more skeptical of big governments and getting censorship on board with a European operating system will be a hard sell.
Yes, you could argue that it would help further the bloc’s focus on digital privacy and holding tech giants accountable, but it’s not as if the EU is already struggling to make an impact.
But let’s pretend the EU somehow manages to get all countries to agree that a European mobile operating system is actually a great idea. The topic jumps over the invasion of Ukraine, sustainability, gas prices and inflation the urgent issue in the European Parliament. What then?
The technical difficulties
Counterpoint’s Stryjak tells TNW that the first major problem a European mobile operating system would face is how to isolate the continent from the rest of the planet.
“The world is getting bigger, but at the same time closer,” he tells TNW. For almost every function in modern society, “you have to have interoperability within Europe and other markets.” In other words, software must work together with other software or it will collapse.
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.
Let’s put it this way: Would you switch to a phone that doesn’t have a native Gmail app? Or tweet? TikTok? Instagram? For those companies alone, it would take an inordinate amount of time to transfer their software – and they are among the best equipped organizations in the world.
Imagine how long it would take for smaller businesses to transfer all the apps you need for work or personal use. It would be an undertaking of galactic proportions.
Achieving “the same functionality of Samsung and Apple [phones] would take many iterations to achieve,” continues Stryjak. And honestly? People are not willing to wait that long for software to get good. They want it to work and they want it to work now.
And then we have the political issues
Continuing with this thought experiment, let’s say that this magical European mobile operating system manages to overcome these development hurdles, pushing every engineer and programmer to focus on making their software and hardware work perfectly with this new system. What then?
“If there is a Europe-specific operating system, can it work in Russia or China?” asks Stryjak. The focus of this system would likely be on GDPR and digital privacy enforcement, so could it work in places where those regulations aren’t as strict?
The answer is probably no.
You just have to look the privacy dispute around HarmonyOS and Huawei’s trials with the US to get an idea of how countries outside Europe would react to a state-backed operating system. In short, bad.
If the EU somehow manages to get its member states to agree to create a mobile operating system, chances are it will end up being supported, struggling to get users and in different countries around the world. world is banned.
In other words, it would be pretty useless.
But is there a need for a European mobile operating system?
Returning to the heart of the piece, the answer is similar to hardware: no, not really.
The EU has been one of the biggest drivers of the digital privacy push and while it could do even more if it had control over its own operating system, the reality is that it has already had a huge impact on technological privacy. As long as the block contains such a huge and prosperous user base, it will continue to control Silicon Valley in one way or another.
In a dream world, a European mobile operating system could improve a lot, but in reality? Pointless.