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Is Android the new Windows? Five ways the mobile space could shake out.

July 15, 2010

Recently I’ve heard this comparison a few times, particularly as Android gains steam: In the mobile space,

Ok, fine. But it’s obviously not that simple. There’s gotta be something to the Mark Twain line, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes”.

So how will this play out? Is there room for an alternative model, beyond the OS duopoly we ended up with on our computers? (Sorry Unix/Linux…) The answer has huge implications for anyone in mobile – and increasingly, that’s everyone.

Here are the five scenarios I see. They’re not meant to be mutually exclusive, but rather instructive in highlighting who might drive the user’s mobile experience.

1. A Google vs. Apple duopoly

This is the outcome everyone seems to be waiting on. If the app model continues to be the dominant force in mobile, then this is the most likely result. Developers don’t want to (re-)make apps a half-dozen times. And consumers don’t want the portability and compatibility issues that come with more diversity. So we’ll end up with the choice of: an open but chaotic environment vs. a closed but curated environment, diversity of hardware vs. a nice, integrated solution. The parallels to PC vs. Mac are clear – even if Google is also trying to play the role of Linux.

pc vs mac

Now, the relative market shares could be different. After all, we all have the PC experience to draw from. We know what’s behind Door Number 1. And rightly or wrongly, many will extrapolate out from the iPod and decide that that model seems pretty good. That said, it may be telling that the iPhone has scooped up so much of the smartphone profits, while still having surprisingly small market share

Overall likelihood of Scenario 1: 50%.

2. Other handset/ OS makers are able to keep up

RIM/ Blackberry, Nokia/ Symbian, even HP/ WebOS, Microsoft/ Windows Mobile and potentially others – these are not small-fry. In fact, in some ways, they’re still the leaders! And they have also learned from the PC era. They are far from destined to be OS/2.

What will it take for them to succeed? That’s a whole other post, but my short answer is:

  • Devalue the importance of third-party apps, at least in the short-term. You can’t win here. (More on this later.)
  • Over-deliver on an important use case – not just a set of tech specs – that Google and Apple aren’t focused on.
  • Go wild and deep on partnerships – with non-traditional “carriers,” with content providers, with different channels, and others.

And run, don’t walk.

Likelihood: 15%.

3. Carriers counterattack

Remember way back when, in 2006, when carriers held all the power? We were using arrow keys and menu systems to navigate around our phone. We were offered amazing ringtones and games through Verizon’s Get It Now service. And we were paying ridiculous prices to send tiny little text messages – oh, wait. That’s right. Carriers still control the network. And these cool mobile internet communicators aren’t that cool without the “internet” and “communicator” parts. Carriers know that, and they aren’t going to be reduced to “dumb pipes” without a fight. They also need to be incentivized to build out next-gen networks, and be paid to keep the data flowing.

That said, my guess is that they’ve missed their chance to keep control of the user experience. Nobody ever raved about that being a strength of theirs to begin with. The parallels I see are to ISPs. There was a time when you paid AOL, Compuserve, or Prodigy for internet access, and they also served as your window into the internet. Oh, those were the days.

Likelihood: 5%.

4. Web apps, browsers, and cross-OS media platforms thrive

It’s not a given that native apps will be the crucial deciding factor for what OS/ phone users purchase. After all, how many non-game apps do most people rely on? And how many of those couldn’t be delivered through a great, mobile browser?

Cross-platform web “apps” – web pages designed for mobile interaction – could prove superior for many developers to developing for multiple platforms in multiple languages, and having to consciously free your data from a particular format. If rich mobile web sites become more competitive with native apps, then the mobile arena can support a diversity of operating systems. There are fewer reasons compelling developers and users to choose one over another.*

As a comparison, think of the rise of web – browsers and content providers rapidly gained power (remember the browser wars?), and everyone heralded the irrelevance of the OS. The direct translation is that “browsers” will become more important again in the mobile space. Taken a bit more broadly, this is the threat Apple sees from Adobe Flash. Like Netscape back in the day, it’s a cross-platform way to engage with rich, interactive content.

The two big hurdles for this scenario are:

  • A strong way to monetize web apps, and a perceived reason for users to pay.
  • More standardized access to hardware/ native functionality. The more web apps can easily take advantage of a device’s GPS, accelerometer, camera, etc, the more on-par with native apps they become.

Unfortunately for supporters of this scenario, these are both big hurdles.

Likelihood: 20%.

(* I’m drawing a bit of a distinction between this and Scenario 2. In Scenario 2, I see the user choosing Blackberry, say, because of a proprietary, unique advantage it has – BBM, or perceived reliability of email service, for example. In this scenario (#4), the users don’t really care about which platform they choose because its more important that they can access the web and cross-platform technologies.)

5. One or more specific software players are really successful at becoming people’s online hubs

At this point, this would most likely be Facebook and/ or Twitter. If they truly became where people got their news, their reading lists, their games, and so forth, then they would be the dominant force behind how people experience the mobile web. The collection of mobile web “apps,” or the particular OS platform, would become less important. Facebook in particular has hinted that they want to embed themselves more deeply into the mobile web and mobile apps.

This is also why Facebook hasn’t released an iPad app – why not just drive people to the perfectly good Facebook website?

Both Facebook and Twitter certainly have grand ambitions. That said, they’ll be hard-pressed to marginalize Apple and Google. And there are still plenty of places people visit online that don’t funnel through Facebook or Twitter, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

Likelihood: 10%.

All aboard the ______ train

Regardless of where you are in the mobile ecosystem, you’re placing bets. You don’t want to be caught developing the equivalent of HD-DVD components or shelling out for a sweet HD-DVD player.

It’s a choice about how you spend your resources. Do you put your eggs in the iOS basket? Do you develop web pages optimized for mobile? Do you back Facebook games and jump in right away if and when Facebook begins emphasizing mobile more?

My take is that Google and Apple are both going to keep gaining momentum. They’re both top-notch companies with huge war-chests to invest in this exploding market. That said, maybe there’s room for other OS platforms, particularly in different arenas, from enterprise to emerging markets. And third-party content and software providers probably won’t be marginalized to the extent they were in the desktop era, when Apple and Microsoft also dominated the software people put on their machines. What the web did to the desktop, it has done preemptively to the mobile space.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 1:22 pm

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