Can New Platforms Disrupt iOS and Android?

Okay, first, never say never. What I’m about to say could turn out to be completely wrong. But I am a big believer of using history as a guide for the future, at least in the general sense. And I am not convinced that either Blackberry 10 or the forthcoming Tizen are going to do anything to unseat Android and iOS as the smartphone platforms of choice (let alone the upcoming Ubuntu for smartphones). And it won’t matter how technically superior either are to the incumbents, and it won’t matter than one (Tizen) is being backed and promoted by the largest manufacturers of smartphones in the world, Samsung. And it certainly doesn’t matter what technologists feel should be the case (read the comments in this Wired article to get an idea of what technologists think about this) You do not disrupt incumbents by building a slightly better variant of what they already make.

History That Guides Us

While there are plenty of examples in many industries, let’s focus on computing-related examples. I have two. The first is the mainframe computer. From the mid-1960’s up until the late 1980’s, the mainframe computer was the workhorse for corporate computing. The PC was nothing more than blip on the radar until the late 1980s, and didn’t gain any real home penetration until the mid-1990’s. For 2 decades, if you were working with a computer, odds are it was a mainframe, specifically an IBM mainframe. What competition existed? Well, there were mainframe clones, of which Amdahl was the largest. Even those capture a tiny portion of the mainframe market. Until the 1980’s, your only other real alternative were minicomputers and “superminis” like the PDP-11, VAX, Nova and Eclipse.

What disrupted the mainframe? Two things: UNIX servers and the desktop PC. The PC meant that computing could be local. It was under user control, not IT control. UNIX brought performance and an open platform that was available from many vendors (Sun, Apollo, HP, Silicon Graphics, eventually IBM). Sure, the mainframe still occupied an important place in the computing universe, but the beginning of the end was the widespread adoption of PC’s by businesses, and the rise in using UNIX machines for server-side functions.

The PC itself offers a second example, because it is in the process of being disrupted now. The PC as we know it, and assume it, is actually an Intel machine running Microsoft Windows in some form. Starting in the late 1980’s, Windows began to dominate the desktop, and then the laptop market. By the early 1990’s, CP/M, AmigaOS, GEM and other operating systems were effectively gone. The Macintosh was still around, but largely relegated to the education and creative content markets. If you ran a business, you used Windows PC’s. At home, most people played games and worked at home on Windows PCs. Why does Windows command such a huge share of the market? One reason is software. There are millions of applications in every possible niche and genre for Windows. The Mac is slowly catching up, but still has a ways to go. The other is price-point: you can get a functionally useful PC for about $500. That machine isn’t pretty, and it isn’t “cool”, but it does the job.

There is a slice of the technology world that has tried to proclaim every year since the early 2000’s as “the year of Linux”. The vain hope is that people will switch their home PC’s to Linux, because of its technological superiority. Is it technically better than Windows? Certainly, in several measurable ways. It requires less memory, chews up less CPU to support running applications, and requires less disk space to run. It has a more sophisticated virtual memory management system, arguably a better thread scheduling system, and offers generally superior security. But none of that matters. What matters is that there are at least 2, if not 3, orders of magnitude more programs available that the average person can obtain, install and run without the aid of a capable technologist in the room. The main reason the Mac has gained any ground on Windows is partly because of increased availability of popular software. But both the Linux and Mac are essentially variations on a theme. They are computers with displays, controlled by keyboards and mice.

What’s disrupting the PC? The tablet. It is a different platform, with a different initial focus, and a different way of looking at computer. It is more “appliance-like” than a Windows PC. They are easier to care for, don’t have the “system admin” stuff that a typically PC requires (which means guys like me aren’t called over to get free dinner at his parent’s house to figure out why the Dell isn’t working). The context in which you use a tablet is somewhat different. The expectation on how it works is different. The PC isn’t being disrupted by a thing that looks like another PC. It is being disrupted by something completely different.

Technical Superiority Won’t Matter

It won’t matter if BB10, Tizen or Ubuntu are technically superior. It won’t matter that Samsung controls Tizen, potentially freeing them from Google and Android. What will matter is that iOS and Android each have about 700,000 apps to choose from and that number keeps growing. BB10 might have 30,000-40,000 at launch (RIM is claiming 70,000, still only 1/10th what Android and iOS have). And Tizen’s app selection? Who knows, but I would bet it won’t be more than 100,000, and I would guess less than 50,000. Ubuntu’s selection will be paltry at best. It is a platform that may appeal to a tiny number of technologists, but like its desktop counterpart, will be ignored by consumers and virtually all enterprises.

The smartphone market is a mature market. The time for upheaval and change brought about by yet another OS (that is effectively the same as the incumbents) is done. Why? Smartphones are 15 years old and counting. From 1997 through to 2001, we had the “early days and lots of choice” phase, where everyone was trying to figure out what a smartphone was. Then we had the equivalent of the early 1980’s where things stabilized a bit (when CP/M and AppleDOS were still going strong, but PC-DOS/MS-DOS was coming up). In smartphones, it was Symbian outside of North America, and Blackberry and Windows Mobile inside North America. Then we had the “Windows 95 Moment” of the iPhone, followed shortly afterward by Android. Those two platforms defined what a smartphone would be, and that was a world where the phone was a personal computer. They also took the smartphone out of the enterprise and put in the hands of consumers. The real philosophical change was that it wasn’t a phone that was smart. It was a  small computer that happened to make phone calls. From 2007 until now, those two platforms went from nothing to controlling 80-90% of the global new smartphone market. Together, they effectively killed Symbian, put Blackberry on its deathbed, and have kept Windows Phone down to a paltry share of the market.

Smartphone users made it clear what they want: apps and content. The Android user community had a slow start in app uptake (they said they wanted them, but didn’t buy them in large numbers), but that has changed over the past 12 months. Android users still don’t buy as many apps as iOS users, but the rate of consumption is increasing. As for content: it is hard to beat the content available for iOS and Android. Apple in particular has a massive catalog of music, movies, TV shows and books. Their closest rival in this is Amazon, which is offering its own “walled-garden” variant of Android on their Kindle Fire tablets, but backed by a massive library of music, video and books.

As for the assertion by some that “people are willing to change platforms”, thereby implying that the new platforms have a chance, here’s a newsflash: those people are changing from Android to iOS, or iOS to Android. They going from one deep and rich ecosystem to another. They aren’t switching to Windows Phone. They aren’t switching to Blackberry. The same can be seen in PC’s: for those not moving to a tablet, they are switching from Windows to a Mac. They aren’t switching to Linux.

But It’s Samsung!!

Some will try to argue that Tizen will kick butt because it is being backed by Samsung, currently the larger manufacturer of smartphones (and number 1 or number 2 in all mobile phones, depending on whose numbers you use). My answer? So what. Nokia was the largest manufacturer of smartphones, and owned 65% of the global smartphone market in 2007 with Symbian. Their supposedly superior position didn’t save Symbian (which is now effectively gone). It didn’t get them any real traction with Windows Phone, which overall is stuck around 5-6% of new smartphone sales, not all of that being Nokia. Nokia went from being the biggest name in mobile phones to being an afterthought in smartphones and is in decline in feature phones. In the next 12-24 months, it is conceivable that Nokia won’t exist as an independent entity, if it exists at all. Few would have predicted that happening back in 2007.

In 1984, IBM was the largest technology company in the world, and controlled 90% of the mainframe market and 70-80% of the PC market. It’s safe to say that 70-80% of all computing was done on something made by IBM. By 1992, just 8 years later, they were on their way down, and were probably a year to 18 months away from seeking bankruptcy protection. It took an outsider to turn them around, and get them off their obsession with trying to save the mainframe. Today, IBM is still one of the biggest technology companies out there, but the mainframe is a tiny fraction of the computing market, and IBM doesn’t make a desktop or laptop PC anymore.

Samsung, with Android, owns a significant chunk of the smartphone market. But they don’t control it. And they aren’t exactly marketing and branding geniuses. Their culture isn’t one of dynamic innovation and constant invention. They aren’t perceived as leaders in industrial design or technology innovation. Their phones are very me-too, but no, I’m not convinced they are a direct rip-off of the iPhone. But they don’t offer anything substantially better or different that any other touchscreen smartphone offers. They are followers in this space, not leaders. They don’t have to lead in design or technology to own 30% of the market, though. Their 30% is about squeezing every penny out of the supply chain to offer a profitable phone at cut-rate prices. Their hold on the market is what it is because of their ability to make a commodity succeed. But that hold doesn’t translate into being able to set the direction of the market.

But Tizen/BB10/Ubuntu Are “Better”!!

Technological superiority only matters to a tiny, tiny fraction of consumers. It matters a bit more to enterprise customers, in part because many of those decisions are driven partly or entirely by technologists. But for consumers, they don’t buy the obscure parts of the spec sheet. At best, they might look at the screen, the size, the storage, the battery life, the price and the ecosystem. Many will get what their friends or family have, or what they think looks cool. They really don’t care, ultimately, about number of cores or GPU capabilities. They couldn’t care less about the languages and frameworks used to build apps. They really, really don’t care if something is truly Open Source or not (most couldn’t even tell you what it is or what it means). They don’t care who gets what licence fees, and they don’t care where it was made. They care about the most visible features, the price and what they can do with it.

It won’t matter if Tizen, BB10 or Ubuntu are based off of more sophisticated kernels. Whether they have “better designed” frameworks are irrelevant. That some part of the cost of the phone might include (or not include) some form of licensing fee or royalty really doesn’t matter, as long as the overall price is acceptable. And consumers really don’t care if Samsung has to occasionally bow to the Church of Google to somehow remain an Android vendor. These things only matter to some technologists, and some people at the specific companies. And there aren’t enough of them to influence what consumers and enterprise customers do.

We Have What We Have

For better or worse, smartphones will be dominated by Android and iOS for a few years yet. What remains to be seen is how they split the lion’s share of the market. New upstarts? Well, good luck. At this point, they’ll have about as much success as any new PC operating system introduced after 1995. Only one operating system has come close to “competing” with Windows, and that was MacOS, and even it has taken 15 years to gain any significant new ground from its market position in 1997. BeOS made a run at it, and never went anywhere (apparently now it’s Haiku, available for free). Others have tried to position Linux to take on the consumer and enterprise PC markets, with limited success.

At this point in the game, the only way I can see displacing Android and iOS is to come up with something completely different, with a new way of managing information, being productive and communicating. Whatever disrupts them will be different. And not “different OS”, but “different device”, in the same way that the iPhone was different from most mainstream smartphones on the market. The horse wasn’t disrupted by a better horse, it was disrupted by something completely different. Tizen, BB10 and Ubuntu? Sorry, as far as consumers are concerned, they not completely different in a way that is better for them.