Will Other Mobile Operating Systems Matter?

One this has become clear: for about a year now, Android and iOS have commanded the vast majority of the mobile operating system space, at least in smartphones. Together they have made up 85% or more of the mobile space. While their overall gains on the market have slowed, they continue to pile up the installed base and more and more people have chosen them over the “also-rans” of Windows Phone, Blackberry and Bada, and the orphans Symbian, WebOS and Windows Mobile. There are many that are saying “wait, the game is still young” and that other systems will show up to give the top two competition. While obviously you should never say never, I will say that the odds of displacing either iOS, Android or both from the top of the mobile heap are so incredibly long they might as well be zero. As I pointed out in a previous post, the only way to really disrupt them is to change the game. Okay, so why don’t I believe that Blackberry 10, the upgraded Windows Phone, Tizen or the forthcoming Firefox OS will displace the incumbents?

This Game Isn’t New

As I have repeated pointed out, smartphones as a class of device are not all that new. Some in the industry continue to act as if 2007 was the year of the birth of the smartphone. That is like saying that 1981 was the year of the birth of the PC. Both ignore the indisputable fact that both these industries existed many years prior to the seminal events that shaped and defined their future. The PC actually got started in the early-to-mid 1970’s. The first smartphone, the Nokia N9000 Communicator, released in 1996. The PC as we know it became reality in August of 1981 with the introduction of the IBM PC running MS-DOS. The smartphone as we recognize it today arrived in June 2007 with the first iPhone. But both were entering industries with some degree of maturity, albeit on a relatively small scale compared to where they would go.

As with PC’s, the smartphone has seen a lot of churn before the archetype and form was established. Symbian, Windows CE, Windows Mobile, PalmOS, Blackberry had all arrived, and some continue to soldier on. The same happened in the PC world: there were plenty of options for hardware and software, and one of the more dominant platforms before the IBM PC was the Apple II family. But, as the 1980’s unfolded, most were swept aside for either the IBM PC (or what people would eventually call just a “PC”) and the Macintosh. The Macintosh itself would eventually diminish, until it saw a rebirth in 1997 with the return of Steve Jobs, and the injection of new life into the platform.

So, no, the smartphone market isn’t new. Any more than PC’s as a technology were “new” in 1981. It took over nearly 2 decades before one PC platform came to dominate the landscape. We are 16 years into the smartphone universe, and 2 platforms now define that smartphone space. When smartphone buyers were dominated by early adopters and technology junkies, change was inevitable. But now mainstream customers have entered the picture, and they generally don’t change very quickly (but, as always, there are exceptions).

Won’t Be Different Where It Counts

But wait! Blackberry 10 is completely different and will redefine how smartphones work! Windows Phone 8 keeps the revolutionary Metro interface and improves enterprise integration! Firefox OS and Tizen will be more open than Android, making cheaper for handset makers and attractive to developers! Surely any of these can rewrite the mobile landscape?

Except they likely won’t, simply because these claims are really just about cosmetic differences between them and the incumbents. Any differences under the hood mean nothing to the average consumer. The don’t care about improvements in memory management, thread scheduling or resource usage. They don’t give a rat’s behind about open API’s and supposedly “easy access” for developers. It doesn’t matter. All they’ll see is a marginal or weird operating system that doesn’t support Facebook or Twitter very well, doesn’t have a broad selection of apps and content, or won’t play Angry Birds.

Part of what gave the Wintel PC such a dominant position in the PC marketplace was the software and content catalog: it had a couple of orders of magnitude more than the next biggest platform, the Macintosh. The same is happening in the mobile world. Android and iOS both have in excess of 600,000 apps each. Windows Phone has around 70,000 apps. Blackberry 10 will have a few thousand at best (because all of the existing apps will have to be rewritten. BB10 isn’t backward compatible with BB7). Tizen will effectively have none. Consumers will eschew a platform that doesn’t have what they want.

Consider the lesson of Beta vs. VHS. Beta was considered, in some ways, technically superior to VHS. It had smaller cassettes had better video and audio encoding. Beta was initially hurt by the smaller capacity (the tapes only held 60 minutes of video). A common myth is that you could only get Beta machines from Sony, but that isn’t true (you could also get them from Toshiba, Sanyo, NEC, Aiwa, and Pioneer). The problem was content. There were precious few movies to rent or buy on Beta, relative to VHS. As the VHS library got bigger, studios and distributors tended to focus more on VHS. Volume begat volume. Had Beta had an enormous library of content, it may have survived. But without a broad library, Beta has less appealing.

Technology Not As Important As People Think

We technologists like to get wrapped up in the technology, and tend to overlook or ignore many of the other aspects of a product, particularly ones that make them successful. Windows is dominant because it built an impressive 3rd-party software catalog, not because the technology is superior. As operating systems go, Windows is generally inferior. MacOS and Linux are far more advanced when it comes to underlying technology. They are more efficient in their use of available resources, conform better to open standards, and scale better with hardware. But neither has the software catalog, and neither have been adopted widescale by businesses for the desktop (although that is slowly changing for the Mac). Where has Linux seen its best success? In the one place where technology matters more: on the server. When technologists are driving the selection, then superior technology makes a difference. But when the decision isn’t being driven by technologists, then the actual technology becomes a secondary consideration.

Neither Android nor iOS are the paragons of mobile operating systems. They are both certainly good, but they aren’t necessarily great. iOS has an unusual approach to multitasking, the sandboxing is good and bad, and iOS limits users in terms of setting what applications should be used by default for some tasks (like opening e-mail, URLs, etc). Android API’s are inconsistent, it does little to protect some system resources like battery life from badly-behaved apps, and offers minimal security. But both offer something that other systems do not: a wide catalog of “stuff” to make the phones useful and entertaining.

Its The Ecosystem

In the end, it comes down to the ecosystem. It isn’t the device by itself, it is the environment that the device works in. And that means apps and content. It doesn’t  matter how technologically superior any new entrant is. Consider the Minidisc, Sony’s attempt to improve/replace the compact cassette and CD for music-on-the-go. Technologically, it was superior to both. It was smaller. Unlike the CD, the media was protected inside a case, reducing the chances of damage to the disc surface. Unlike the cassette, you could easily skip tracks (forward and back), it avoided the issues of tangled tape, and could withstand heat better. None of that mattered. Technological superiority couldn’t trump a tiny catalog of music. Sony could have given the devices and some music away for free, and it wouldn’t have mattered. The price wasn’t the problem. The single-vendor availability wasn’t the problem. Ultimately, the problem was the tiny catalog of music, and little interest by the labels to adopt the format.

That isn’t to say the technologically superior entrant will always lose. Consider Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD. Blu-ray is technologically superior in most ways to HD-DVD. It offers substantially more storage (128GB vs. 30GB), better throughput (53.95Mbps for raw data vs. 36.55Mbps, and higher for video and audio as well), and offered manufacturers more flexibility in terms of what features were required in their players. But until the studios and major distributors finally decided to support only one format, the two ran virtual neck-and-neck in terms of sales and available titles. What killed HD-DVD was the decision by Warner Brothers in 2008 to end support for HD-DVD. Netflix followed shortly afterward, and the rest of the studios abandoned the format soon after that.

Ultimately, consumers didn’t really care about the technological differences between HD-DVD and Blu-ray. The things that did matter to them (picture quality, convenience, cost, selection of players) were virtually identical. What tipped the scales in favour of Blu-ray was the fact that it would continue to offer a large and expanding catalog of content. HD-DVD would not.

Doesn’t Bode Well For Systems Not Named iOS or Android

Ultimately, iOS and Android have the ecosystems, and newcomers like Blackberry 10 and Tizen do not. Windows Phone has slowly been building an app catalog, but that hasn’t changed the fact that Windows Phone is mired around 2-5% of the smartphone market and has yet to show any real gains. Improved enterprise integration may give it a bump, but keep in mind that enterprise integration for iOS and Android is already in place, and enterprises have figured out how to make them work. It isn’t as big an advantage for Windows Phone 8 as some make it out to be, particularly given that the balance of the market (people who don’t have smartphones) is shrinking at a fairly dramatic rate.

Again, if you want to disrupt iOS and Android, don’t build yet another smartphone. Build something else. You won’t supplant them with something that looks, feels and acts more-or-less like what people are already choosing. I most certainly may be wrong, but I’m just not convinced the market is all that adaptive anymore. Consumers and enterprises have selected iOS and Android. These new guys just aren’t going to change that.