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The Mobile Platform Wars: The Inevitability of a Winner

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 7/8/2011

Android, iOS and BlackBerry, oh my! The current mobile marketplace is full of competing software platforms, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. But while today’s ecosystem is diverse, it’s bound to see many of its entries suffer extinction.

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    The Problem with Our Current Ecosystem

    Compared to the PC market, mobile phones are the very picture of software diversity. The big names have been, and continue to be, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. There’s a wide variety of smaller players, however, including Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry OS, and a constellation of Linux derivatives.

    The choice made available by this array of software isn’t bad to have, but this variety introduces numerous problems, the most serious of which is the lack of compatibility between them, both in terms of the apps and the user experience. Jumping from one to the other can be a jarring experience for a casual user, and the need to re-purchase apps for each platform is annoying. Although most people do not have multiple mobile phones, consumers sometimes have a desire to switch from one operating system to the next when purchasing their next device, or may want to purchase a tablet to go along with their smartphone.

    Our current ecosystem makes this harder, and in a way, actually limits choice. If you’re already using the iPhone, there is a barrier between you and the purchase of an Android tablet. You’ll need to learn a new mobile operating system and you’ll need to start using an entirely separate mobile store which doesn’t even offer many of the apps you know and love. While the hardware may be appealing, the software actually hinders your purchase of a device you might otherwise enjoy.

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    The Coming Lock-In

    Mobile devices are far from the first to have this issue.

    Have You Used the Commodore OS Lately? Today, the term “PC” usually refers specifically to computers running Windows or, perhaps, Linux. That was not always the case. In the beginning, the personal computer was a type of device represented by numerous companies and a number of different operating systems. In the early 80s you would find Commodore BASIC, Atari BASIC, DOS, GEOS and CP/M, just to name a few.

    Such severe fragmentation was not, and never will be, appealing to consumers. As a result, developing markets tend to converge on a single system which becomes dominant.

    This is called lock-in, and it doesn’t just apply to electronics. Early horseless carriages (what would become the modern car) used a wide variety of platforms to propel themselves including steam, electricity, and even coal. They also used a variety of wheel configurations and types. Eventually, however, the gasoline-fueled internal combustion, tied to pairs of rubber, air-filled tires, came to dominate – and ever since then, road vehicles have focused on that platform almost exclusively.

    Lock-in isn’t a forgone conclusion, but it’s extremely likely, particularly in a market where technology diversity has few benefits. This describes the mobile market well. Although having software choice is nice, the basic function of all mobile operating systems is similar. Having multiple operating systems available doesn’t offer much benefit to consumers, and can in fact confuse them.

    An Early Coal-Powered Car Another reason for lock-in is the cost of continuing to develop your own platform compared to using one developed by another. Huge sums of money and large swaths of time are required to develop an operating system (and an ecosystem of apps to go with it), which makes it unlikely that several different platforms will be able to compete neck-and-neck. Arguably, that is the current situation, as Android and iOS are both great. But if I was writing this article two years ago, that would not be the case – and two years from now, the story is likely to be different. The current state of the market is an exception, rather than the rule.

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    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?

    Android 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.

    Smartphone Market Share - May 2011 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.

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    Where We Go From Here

    Although good ideas tend to trump bad ones, they do so only over large spans of time. Is it a terrible idea for RIM to continue with its own operating system? Yes, it is. Does that mean the company will stop pouring money down that hole? No, it doesn’t.

    Over the next 5 years, we will continue to see different competitors in the market. But through it all, the leaders will become stronger while all other options fall by the wayside. The only potential upset that is likely is Windows Phone beating Android, although it’s equally likely that Google will fix its problems. I suppose it is remotely possible that Apple might license iOS, which would change everything, but that’s not likely.

    Change will not be sudden. It will be gradual, but it will happen. Eventually, one mobile operating system will be locked in. The rest will be left to wither, or find subsistence on their unique hardware (as will be Apple’s course of action).