RIP Openwave Mobile Browser

So as we all get spun up in the excitement and wonder over iPhone 2.0, and as Apple appears to continue its ascendancy in the mobile space, I feel compelled to share about a company that’s gone in the other direction. I don’t know if folks don’t care, or there really isn’t any impact as a result of it, but either way I feel inclined to spend some pixels on a recent development. It’s my blog and you can’t stop me… (but go ahead and try 🙂 )
Just after 3GSM (ahem, Mobile World Congress), Openwave, my former employer and once bastion of the mobile world announced its most recent restructuring plan. I didn’t see anyone pick up on this line, and indeed many of my former colleagues and fellow Phone.com/Openwave alumni missed this gem in the press release from back in March:

With regard to its Client portfolio, Openwave will satisfy existing contractual obligations, but will not actively support new development for this product line.
Translation: say good bye to the Openwave Mobile Browser. Rest in Peace UP.Browser… That said, as we all know very well that devices live long in the market place and just because they stop putting fuel in the engine, the train will keep rolling down the track for some time. I’ve honestly got no idea how many devices there are in the pipeline that will still ship with the Openwave Browser on it, but suffice to say you’re not going to see the Version 8 of the browser out in the wild.
At one point in time Openwave could boast well over 60% market share on the browser front, so what happened? Sure, it was a dot com, (it was actually several dot coms…) but it shed that moniker back in 2001 and appeared to be a survivor of the tech sector implosion. Was it a string of misguided executive management? (Arguable). Maybe it was that the client was still effectively a Web 1.0 client in a Web 2.0 world. Maybe it was a series of failures to break out of the browser silo and better interact with other technologies on the handset. There was fanfare around a link up with Sun and better integration with Java back in 2006, but that never really came to fruition. Openwave did have an AJAX platform story, but it never got far off the ground either.
The demise of the Openwave Client certainly cannot be attributed to lack of talented folks working on the project, as the company was able to recruit and retain (for a long time) some fabulous top tier talent who have taken their experience, knowledge and learnings to all corners of the mobile ecosystem. It was not for lack of customer base for at one time or another I think every mobile phone manufacturer you can think of installed some Openwave technology on their devices, be it the browser or the messaging client.
So what gives? I think that there were a couple of things. If you look at the penetration of the Openwave Browser, you might notice a couple of things. If you were to look at your website logs, you’d see millions and millions of version Openwave 4.x devices. You’d also see millions and millions of Openwave 6.x devices. Notice that you’ll find very few 5.x or 7.x devices in there. 4.x was and is a rock solid WML browser, and the 6.2 line does a pretty good job with XHTML-MP and CSS. They were in the right place at the right time. The 5.x browser was the ‘first GUI browser’ but it required a special flavor of WML to make it look fancy (bonus points for anyone who remembers m-services…). Version 7 browser was simultaneously trying to do two things: define a new experience/environment for content delivery (through its own AJAX/Widget platform) and also be a ‘full web browser.’ The problem was that the market had already decided that the base requirement was for ‘full web browsing.’ Unfortunately this contradicts the approach of implementing published specifications and operator requirements. The real world doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about if their code is to spec, and ‘just make it work’ is a hard spec to build to.
Openwave believed that it had an advantage in terms of performance, spec compliance and small foot print, and there was a race on for them to keep pushing functionality down into the container faster than WebKit or Opera could shrink down small enough to get onto ‘feature phones.’ Seems like they lost the race, and it was a loosing battle anyway. Decision makers are influenced by what they see in the marketplace and when an executive who controls the budget can get her hands on a full featured browser running native on an ‘open’ device, having a story of ‘spec compliance’ doesn’t go too far. Load the iPhone into the mix and then you’re fully screwed.
The other factor that I think came to bear is at the end of the day the company just didn’t have a steady revenue stream to support innovation on the client and stay invested in it for the long haul. I suppose that’s just one of the woes of being a public company, dealing with the expectations of continued revenue growth and cost containment on a quarterly basis. If management and investors get timid if returns don’t happen quickly then there’s no hope really. Anything in the mobile world seems to take a very long time and unless you’ve got the stomach, patience, and fat wallet to sustain operations, failure is nearly inevitable. Many of the investments that Openwave made were actually quite sound ones, but the timing was just off. Had there been the wherewithal to continue developing and nurturing products rather than kill them off when they weren’t churning a profit quickly the story may have been very different.
So back around to you and I, and the ultimate question: “So what?” The folks over at Gartner are now saying that ‘Smartphone’ shipments account for 11% of the global market, but that leaves 89% of the market still on something else. The April Mobile Metrics Report from the folks over at AdMob show that 25% of their traffic comes from Smartphones, but again, that still leaves 75% of the market to address via other platforms. Looking at the browser landscape, we’ll be left with the custom work done by Teleca (aka obigo aka AU), Access (with NetFront), Opera (embedded), and then the device specific browser, MIB from the folks at Motorola, and Nokia’s WebKit ports. The good news for you is that the efforts that you put into building content of the Openwave browser (if you did) will not go to waste. Standards compliant XHTML-MP and CSS is going to get you a long way to dealing with the other ‘feature phone’ variants out there. What this does mean that the information and resources that were available from the Openwave Developer program, such as the free MMS and WAP Push libraries, in addition to the Browser Simulator and free access to WAP gateways is surely not long for this planet. So if you don’t have the Openwave simulators, go get them now before you can’t. Just because Openwave is stopping browser development doesn’t mean that all of those 1.4 billion devices are suddenly going to land in the dust bin.
So a moment of silence please, and spill out some your Forty into the street in respect for the Openwave Mobile Browser.

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