Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Shaking the Smartphone OS Cocktail

The difference between a mélange and a mess is balance. A mélange mixes together disparate elements into a cohesive combination by carefully balancing each part in relation to the other parts. A mess, by contrast, has no balance. It’s a jumble of confusing elements that fight against each other. It’s why one bartender can make the perfect cocktail and another a horrible brew with the same ingredients.
The smartphone OS market right now is a mess not a mélange. Rather than a handful of operating systems that compliment each other we have too many that do the same thing and fight with each other. While this will eventually shake out, at the moment it is a confusing mess for the consumer.
I’m about to step up to a smartphone. It’s been a long time coming. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what value these devices had. They had neither the software or power that I crave in a computer nor, in most cases, the sound quality I want in a phone. Both of those situations have changed. The devices and apps have become more powerful and hence, more useful. The sound quality has also increased dramatically. This is a great time to buy these devices too. Prices are dropping and data coverage expanding.
It’s the operating systems that are holding me back. There are too many of them to choose from. Smartphones are not like old school cell phones. In my old mobile phones the operating system really didn’t matter. The carrier and phone did but not the OS. Whether you bought a phone from Nokia, LG, Samsung, or Motorola, the features of the phone and phone company (flip or stick? service in the desert?) decide your experience.
No longer. Now, like a computer, you have to decide on an OS and boy are there a lot of them. Ticking off the major ones in my head I came up with Apple iOS, Android, WebOS, Windows 7 Mobile, and RIM’s BlackBerry 6 OS. That’s five major smartphone operating systems I can come up with using no research. All with incompatible apps, offered on different devices that have different features, on different carriers, and available in different countries. If I was starting from scratch, I would need a matrix of carriers (probably only the major ones like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and Nextel), device manufacturers (the ones I’ve mentioned plus HTC and RIM) and five operating systems. All before I got to the features of the phone. At a minimum that’s a 4X6X5. For you math geeks that means as many as 120 combinations. Even if I eliminate some combinations as non-existent, such as Blackberry OS with anything but a RIM device, it’s still a big number before heading out to look at the phones that support my X by Y by Z combination.
Complicating matters is that smartphones are only one slice of the mobile pie. I have to take into account that I might want a pad device someday. That makes the OS choice even more important since I wouldn’t want more than one mobile OS with incompatible apps. It’s bad enough that my laptop and phone will have different applications and operating systems. No need to make it three different operating systems.
It wouldn’t be so bad if there were clear distinctions between any of these operating systems and their apps. Perhaps from the point of view of the folks who design them and the analysts who cover the mobile market there is. To consumers, however, it’s all the same. You have gestures, even if they are different. You have apps, even if they are different. You have buttons and some type of virtual keyboard, even if they are different. At best, ones choice is determined by whimsical personal preferences.
The thing is, the OS matters. Just like any other computer, the smartphone OS determines what applications are available for your platform. Which operating systems a software developer writes for depends less on technical details and much more on market share. My choices will be limited by which OS app developers think will provide them the most exposure in the market. Most software companies don’t want to develop for an operating system that won’t have much market share or be around very long.
I’ve been in this industry long enough to know this won’t continue. Sooner or later there will be a shakeout and half of these operating systems will disappear. Some won’t that should but will be marginalized like Windows CE. Others will become nothing more than user interfaces in much the same way Apple’s OS turned into UNIX under the covers but has kept its Apple GUI. Still others will disappear altogether.
The problem is guessing which ones will live and which will die. No one wants to buy a device that will have an obsolete and discontinued operating system. It’s like buying a Palm device anywhere between 2000 and 2005. If you knew then what we know now you wouldn’t have. I have a desk draw full of obsolete devices like my old Palm devices.  They are, for all practical purposes, museum pieces.
I generally don’t like to make predictions (since they are frequently wrong) but here’s what I think will happen:
  • Apple iOS – keeps going. Apple simply doesn’t care about the wider market. That and the cognoscenti love their Apple crack.
  • Android – generous licensing will insure that it continues to evolve. It lives!
  • Windows 7 Mobile – another failed attempt. Sorry Microsoft. I actually like Vista and Windows 7 on the desktop. The mobile OS is too little too late. It dies. Microsoft money insures it dies slowly and painfully. Please Mt. Ballmer, do a deal with Google and move to Android while you still can.
  • WebOS – really? I get that HP paid good money for Palm but with all the other choices, why would I want this. The tablet market? And this from a company who’s last homegrown OS was HP/UX. It dies and HP switches to Android merging whatever is good about WebOS into it.
  • Blackberry OS – this is a tough one. RIM has an enormous and fanatical installed base but it’s slipping. They had the first viable smartphone-like device which helped get them established. At the time you had to rely on their closed system for email. Now, that’s a liability. I’ll bet that they quietly move to something else but with Blackberry extensions so the old guard can feel happy. My guess is that it will be Android too.
Given where the market is going, the basic mobile phone probably has only a few more generations before they are all smartphones. There will be basic versions for the cheap, the Luddite, and the burner phone market. Those will still be smartphones, just lobotomized ones.
In the meantime, there are too many choices and that will hurt the market. Consumers like simplicity. Until recently, mobile phones were fairly simple devices with a small number of functions. As long as the major bases were covered (make and receive calls, SMS, a couple of toys like tip calculators) you were fine. Now they are computing endpoints with all the same problems as a laptop. Too many operating systems makes it overly complicated. It can’t continue like this.
For the smartphone OS folks who I’ve just insulted remember this: This was the same situation in the personal computer/workstation market in 1990. You had DOS, Apple, dozens of UNIX flavors, CP/M in all of it’s variants, as well as proprietary workstation operating systems. Remember IRIS? Ask your kids (huh? what’s that?) and you will feel old. I loved developing for Apollo’s Domain OS but where is it now? Next to the VAX in the Smithsonian. The market demanded simplicity, leaving Microsoft with the lion’s share. It didn’t matter that DOS was inferior to UNIX or Domain OS. Microsoft still ate their lunch. That UNIX, Apple, and a few others still exist is no solace. They are niche players now, not majors.  Windows and Linux make up the majority of the market by fulfilling different needs. They compliment each other.
Since I have to bet, I’m betting on Android. I’m locked into Verizon with no burning need to change which makes the decision easier. Choosing Android eliminates Apple and RIM devices too, further simplifying things. I almost don’t care what the phone is now. I’ll probably decide on price.

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