Who Will Be The Winner?
If we accept that lock-in is an inevitable outcome, as I have reason to believe we should, the next question is obvious. Who will win?
Lock-in is a story of monopoly, and that means there’s a winner and many losers. As is the case with Microsoft and Windows, Intel with x86, and Adobe with Flash, becoming the industry standard offers up the opportunity for large profits. It also means ruthlessly crushing the competition.
Before I go any further, I’ll add a disclaimer. This is all speculation. Predictions are difficult because they can only be based on what’s currently happening, and unforeseeable events can change the world. If Steve Jobs dropped dead, everyone surrounding the company he has built would be questioned.
Based on the current market, however, it seems that iOS won’t be the winner. Why? Because Apple refuses to license its operating system to other companies. The only way iOS could become the dominant mobile operating system is if Apple became the dominant distributor of mobile hardware, and that seems unlikely.
Indeed, history is likely to repeat itself. The Mac operating system sank as the personal computing market grew because Apple would only use it on its own machines. As smartphones and tablets become more common, Apple is going to yet again be limited by its closed business model.
Also easily counted out are one-off operating systems like the Blackberry Tablet OS. Why RIM insisted on building its own OS for its tablet is beyond me. The company has little hope of competing in this market.
This leaves Android and Windows Phone. Of the two, Android currently seems to be the shoe-in. But there’s a severe problem with Android, and that’s fragmentation. When Google introduced Honeycomb, it unveiled that apps would generally not be able to port from the smartphone version to the tablet version. It’s impossible to overstate how this negatively impacts Android as a mobile OS. In addition to this, vendors have so far been given the freedom to substantially modify Android, to the point where a casual observer may not understand that different devices are still running the same operating system. This negates the power of familiarity, which is one of the reasons why lock-in occurs so frequently.
Windows Phone, on the other hand, is so far a very precise operating system. It does not suffer from fragmentation issues and it has a simple, unique interface that is instantly recognizable. The recent announcement that Windows 8 will also include a tile interface overlay that is visually similar to Windows Phone 7 is proof that Microsoft understands the importance of familiarity. The company wants consumers to be able to sit down in front of any Windows operating system, on any device, and feel like the basic interface is similar. That is the kind of maneuver that leads to lock-in.
Does that mean that Windows Phone 7 will become dominant? No, it doesn’t. Google is also a large and profitable company, and it already has a huge lead. If learns its lessons and combats fragmentation, Google will be able to claim victory with Android. If Google continues on its current path, however, there is room for Microsoft to upset the market.