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There Absolutely CAN Be Only One (Or Two)

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I always look forward to the analysis and opinion of Ed Hardy, editor at Brighthand.com, an excellent resource on the smartphone industry. In his article “There Can Be More Than One“, Hardy makes a compelling argument. He believes that, unlike the desktop computing environment’s monolithic standard being Microsoft Windows alongside various niche platforms, the mobile OS landscape won’t see such adoption and standardization. He believes the mobile OS landscape will will remain this bouquet of choices, with various platforms catering to the needs of a particular group of users.

Being a big advocate of consumer choice, I like the sound of Hardy’s utopian, pro-choice outlook. But I think he overlooked some key factors, and I can’t say I totally agree with him.
KILLER INSTINCT

Hardy was quick to point out the rise of Microsoft was facilitated through clever moves and ruthless business practices. The point I took from that was Microsoft deliberately sought to dominate by planning to become such an entity. There’s nothing that prevents Android, Symbian, WinMo, RIM, Palm, LiMo or Apple from subscribing to such a mission.

If either organization ever has the financial leverage, distribution channels, and a little killer instinct, be it by clever and astute business practices, catering to developers, or market consolidation, it would be far from impossible for one or two mobile OS’s to dominate. All competing businesses are dreaming up ways to gain marketshare at their competitors’ expense. And some of the current OS caretakers have large enough coffers and a global network of business partners to enable such plans.

DEVELOPER SUPPORT

The platform with the most talented and largest group of application developers usually has the heaviest adoption rates. Inversely, the platform with the most users attracts the most developers. So it’s a beast which feeds upon itself. What a platform does to make application development and distribution easier will decide how big that group of developers will be. With so many options for mobile application development, multiplatform development could become costly, and spread development budgets thin. Software firms usually like to focus on less platforms, instead refining the experience on the most popular platforms. A refined application available on a few platforms is better than a less refined application on all platforms. The improved experience of the refined application has a better chance of gaining users that being available on multiple platforms with less features.

SOUND BUSINESS STRUCTURE AND PLANNING

Of the seven major mobile OS’s, three are controlled by a sole hardware manufacturer. RIM, Apple, and Palm aren’t licensed to other manufacturers. Is this a wise, sound business practice? Or does it leave too little room for error? This was the Achilles’ heel of Apple in its futile efforts to gain marketshare from Microsoft. It means these three will carry entire cost of all software and hardware development. In risky financial times, such high expenditures could be enough to ruin a company, running them almost out of business.

This has nearly happened to Palm already, though they’ve been planning a resurgence, having announced an upcoming next-generation web and media friendly OS. Time will tell whether a smartphone OS can survive while married to one manufacturer, or if it is too risky a business plan, as I now believe.

One point few analysts have pointed out is software applications. Application support is a heavy factor in OS adoption. People want a device that supports their favorite apps and services Windows Mobile’s early monopoly on document handling gave it an advantage in the market. Being able to say the device included Microsoft Office Mobile got many corporate contracts signed by IT directors. Credit for the iPhone’s meteoric rise in the market was largely given to its slick interface, but its integration with Apples iTunes desktop application had just as much to do with it. iTunes has a loyal following, and the exclusivity the iPhone enjoys as the only compatible device is an enormous advantage. Nokia’s Comes With Music is an example of a service that can attract droves of users to Symbian if its successful.

As the competition heats up, application exclusivity agreements can be as catalytic to adoption as carrier agreements today. What would happen if Skype Mobile orĀ  a similarly popular application were available only on one platform? With faster networks becoming more prevalent, an exclusivity agreement with a VOIP provider is akin to a voice carrier signing an exclusivity agreement with a single OS. It would be a boon to the manufacturers that implement the OS, as all of the users depending on the application and service would need that particular OS to continue using it. The power is definitely in the corner of application developers and service providers, and we may see service providers leveraging their user bases to gain lucrative agreements with the platform developers.

PLATFORM INTERFACE ADAPTABILITY

Windows’ desktop interface had a lot to do with its domination, and the case proves true for mobiles as well. Right now, the big draw for consumers choosing a mobile OS is the interface. But a mobile device has arguably more purposes than a desktop PC. Hardy believes there will be enough niche users of various platforms designed to cater to specific groups.

I believe profits and development funding will be bigger factors in the survival of these niche OS’s. Small scale software usually innovates more slowly and with smaller budgets, allowing big pockets with more efficient, quicker responding, development teams to surpass them technologically. User patterns adapt quickly, and the platform and its development must be just as adaptable.

Hardy’s philosophy is predicated on his apparent stance that no OS environment is adaptable enough to fit the needs of prosumers, technophobes, neophytes, business, and mainstream users all at once. Just as he said in his article, “…every device and operating system can’t appeal to every person, and the fact they don’t isn’t a flaw. It’s just the way it is.” He’s absolutely right! That’s just the way it is today, but with today’s technology maturing into tomorrow’s, it may be impossible.

For instance, take the various GUI layers developed for WinMo, such as HTC’s TouchFlo3D and Sony Ericsson’s Panels, designed to ease the use of the OS. Manufacturers could decide to focus on one or two OS’s for financial or production reasons, and create custom layers like these, catering to specific groups to differentiate it’s devices. They could mask features the user wouldn’t likely use, and emphasize features deemed pertinent to that same user’s usage patterns, maybe with all models able to go back to the more complex core view of the OS. We see this already, somewhat, with the various iterations and applications of Linux on everything from set top boxes to self checkout POS systems.

CONCLUSION

So we see that business plan stability, manufacturer support, developer relations, and ease of adaptability are all factors in the level of adoption in smartphone OS’s. Though a user group may like a particular platform, manufacturers will only support its production if the economies of scale allow them to profit. The less manufactured devices, the lower the platform development investment and application developer support. Throw in an astute app exclusivity agreement, and one or two could rise to the top.

I believe form factors and GUI overlays are the future of mobile device differentiation. I foresee two major mobile OS’s down the road, no more than three, all with specific optional interface overlays to cater to certain user types. It’s better for platform development costs, and developers in general. The consumer suffers initially with less choice, but alternative platform interface development could fill the void, and create a more standardized mobile ecosystem with larger developer communities, tailor made interface overlays for specialized and focused user groups, and a larger variety of device form factors to cater to those niche user groups. This solution is more economical, and it focuses application and platform development, and allows greater innovation from the greater application developer pool.

[Picture: Maniac World]

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By , Senior International Correspondent on Oct 5th, 2008 GMT +2

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