Alibaba is probably best known these days for running an e-commerce site, but the Chinese company is thinking about moving into the smartphone operating system business. The Wall Street Journal reports that the OS could launch first in China, although it could eventually be available in other regions.

Right now the Symbian operating system dominates the Chinese smartphone market, but Symbian’s days are numbered, which means there may be some major opportunities for smartphone software makers in China.

There aren’t many details about the OS at this point — and the WSJ story is based on information from an anonymous source, so I’d take it with a grain of salt for now. But the Alibaba operating system sounds a lot like iPhone OS 1.0: Instead of downloading native apps to their phones, users would be expected to run apps hosted on a remote server.

It’s not clear from the description whether we’re talking about web apps like those that run on many Android and iOS smartphones today, or apps designed specifically by Alibaba which will run on the company’s own servers.

If you remember your iPhone history, Steve Jobs originally declared that apps would run in the web browser and HTML was the only development tool. It didn’t take long for hackers to start jailbreaking iPhones and installing their own native apps and shortly after that Apple released official software developer tools and then the App Store.

China is a different market though, as evidenced by the nearly 60 percent market share still held by Symbian. So maybe a cloud-based OS without apps you download to your device for offline use could succeed.

Brad Linder

Brad Linder is editor of Liliputing and Mobiputing. He's been tinkering with mobile tech for decades and writing about it since...

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