China Mobile's effort to support its own mobile operating system to compete with the likes of Apple's iPhone appears to be falling by the wayside, mired by its failure to attract developers and enough backing from handset manufacturers.
The operating system, originally called the Open Mobile System, but better known as the OPhone OS, began appearing on China Mobile smartphones in 2009. The operating system is based on Google's Android, but was localized for the Chinese market, and incorporated features to connect to the carrier's services.
China Mobile, which now has 672 million customers, had wanted to offer a wide-range of OPhone devices at a time when the country was just beginning to offer 3G services. But development of new smartphones using the OS has stalled, according to Teck Zhung Wong, an analyst with research firm IDC.
"Our understanding is that OPhone is in a zombie state," he said. "It looks to me that the most likely path for OPhone is a silent retirement, with any updates likely to be incremental."
Many of the handsets using the OPhone OS came out in 2010, and included smartphones from Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Huawei. But since then, fewer OPhone smartphones have been released to the market.
However, there is still some activity: The newest smartphone using the OPhone OS was released by Huawei last month. Called the Ascend G305T, the phone comes with OPhone 2.6, which is based on Android 2.3. The device is priced at 1199 yuan (US$190).
What plans China Mobile has for the OPhone is unclear. A China Mobile spokeswoman and directors belonging to its research arm declined to talk or did not respond to requests for comment. The OPhone's developer, a Beijing-based company called Borqs, also could not be reached for comment.
While China Mobile had grand ambitions for the OPhone, the operating system often fell behind upgrading to the latest version of Android, Wong said. This made it difficult for the OPhone to be compatible with the latest Android apps. At the same time, China Mobile struggled to attract developers to build apps for the OPhone, with many instead wanting to develop apps for Android.
"The other thing that tripped it up was the selection of devices. They couldn't attract enough handsets," he said. "Frankly, I think its an embarrassment for China Mobile."
While China Mobile is the country's largest mobile carrier, the company has in the past struggled to offer the hottest handsets for use on its 3G network. Analysts have said part of the problem lies with how China Mobile's 3G network uses a homegrown technology called TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access), which is not widely deployed outside of China. As a result, devices including Apple's iPhone have to be redesigned for use on the carrier's 3G network.
Although Apple has yet to make its iPhone officially available on China Mobile, other handset manufacturers have rebuilt their flagship phones to work on the carrier's 3G network. A version of HTC's newest phone, the HTC One X, will be available for China Mobile. Samsung has done the same with its newest Samsung Galaxy smartphone. Both handsets, however, use the Android OS.
Despite the lack of development around the OPhone, handsets running the OS can still be bought. Poter Huang, who lives in the Chinese city of Foshan, said he purchased an OPhone device about a month ago after being sold one at a China Mobile sales promotion event.
"I feel like the OPhone is a copied product, it doesn't have its own innovation," he said, noting that his device was no different from an Android smartphone. "I think it would be hard for this smartphone to compete against the bigger brands," he added.