This is an article I’ve been thinking about writing ever since Google made several big announcements over the past week. I already lived through the major OS war of the early eighties, and since we’re about to experience the same thing in the mobile space, I figured it would be an interesting topic to take a further look at.
To begin, let’s look at the key players.
Microsoft: Their newly announced Windows 7 Phone Series, which I’ll refer to as Windows 7 Mobile, looks extremely promising. It offers Xbox Live integration, tons of social features, and so much more. It will remain licensed-based, which I’ll get into in a moment, and is open to any hardware maker willing to pay the fee, and dish out the specs required to run the OS. Thus far it looks extremely tight, with full compatibility to Windows 7. It’ll even have its own App store, which Microsoft will oversee just like Apple does. Microsoft also says the SDK will be dirt cheap. This looks like MS is taking Apple, RIM, and Google very seriously.
Apple: I don’t think there’s very much to say here. They were the first to really usher in this new era of smartphones for the general public. RIM had been really successful in the past with their BlackBerry, but for the most part that was so successful because of the business side of the market. Apple took ideas that were already out there, and ran with them. Apple has a closed system, meaning the OS will only work on Apple devices. Their App store is monitored by Apple, and they have a very cheap SDK.
Research In Motion: The granddaddy of the smartphone market. Their BlackBerry devices have been extremely successful, and they show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Their brand new OS, which is touch-heavy, will be used across all of their devices. Like Apple, they run a closed system, meaning the OS only works on RIM devices. They too have an App store, and a very low cost SDK.
Google: The new kid on the block, the one that wants to take over everything. They have a free SDK, and a completely open and free OS, Android. They look like they’re going to be completely unstoppable. Their App store isn’t monitored by anyone, and as such anything you want to download you can. Android also runs on netbooks, and will be spread across multiple devices, meaning syncing data between all of these devices will be a breeze.
So these are the major players. The mobile market is clearly changing from what it is right now. In terms of operating systems, Google is certainly going to come out on top. Why? The truth is it’s because they’re completely open and free. There are no fees associated with the OS whatsoever. By default that means they’re going to kick everyone else’s butts. The question facing the general public is what are the pros and cons to each OS, and are we really ready for a truly open platform? Ask yourself this question, how many of you actually use the only completely open OS for your computer? By that I’m asking, how many of you are running Linux right now?
Since RIM, Apple and Microsoft are very similar in terms of what their OS offerings, let’s clear a few things up right away. RIM and Apple both have a completely closed platform. That means RIM will only release their OS on their BlackBerries. Apple is exactly the same, only releasing iPhone OS on their iPhones, iPads, etc. Simple really. Windows is slightly different in that they will release their OS on any device that is sports the minimum system specs, and that pays the licensing fee. What separates these three is this. When RIM and Apple decides to release a firmware update for the platform, they can easily do this without thinking about too much about it. Simply release the update to the public and away you go. Apple can this easier than anyone because they only have three basic devices. With RIM it’s a little more complex being as they have a much wider device selection, but it’s still easier than Microsoft. As such, Apple and RIM are able to pump out updates as frequently as they choose. Truth be told, both handheld manufacturers typically release one major update per year, but they release security updates, and bug fixes whenever they’re found. If a certain device becomes old, they consider it legacy hardware and move on. That only happens every two years or so. Think about how computers work, it’s essentially the same thing. Windows 7 Mobile and Android are in the same boat, except they have things much more complicated.
Phones are not computers, not yet anyways. When MS licenses out Win7 Mobile, they can update the OS as often as they like, but the various hardware makers have to ensure the OS will run on the hardware. MS doesn’t care if their latest OS runs on your five month old device, because all they care about is selling the license. Get it? So what happens is the carrier has to pass the update to the consumers because of the vastly different hardware specifications out there. Thankfully Microsoft can treat their system as a computer system, making sure that basic system specs are being followed before issuing a license. That way when they decide to update, they know a large section of the market will be able to. That also ensures that apps created for the new OS will run on the vast majority of hardware. This is true of Apple and RIM as well. If the devices can’t be upgraded, then certain apps will not work on older hardware. Each app has specific requirements that show what OS is required to play them.
Finally we have Google, which just stunned the world with all their announcements this week. They’re offering hardware makers an OS which is completely free. They’re offering developers an App store that isn’t monitored, and is completely open. Now there are a heck of a lot of pros and cons to this system. MS, RIM and Apple all feature monitored or authorized App stores. That means the only apps that will be sold to you are ones that have been approved by the various companies. As an example, don’t expect porn apps on these devices. That said, by being monitored, these companies try and prevent malware from making it onto the store. They also try to ensure that each and every app will work well within both the OS and the hardware. With MS you can see how this can be a bit tricky, what with all the different hardware. They can assure it works with the OS, but they surely can’t promise you every app will always work on every piece of hardware. Thus, you’re likely to see a fragmented market, apps being available for one model, and not another. This is nothing new though, as we’ve seen this with the first generation iPhone to the iPhone 3GS. It’s just going to be far more fragmented with Windows 7 Mobile and Android.
With Google’s open App store, anyone can upload anything they want to the store. It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand you can download anything you want. Want porn, you’ve got it! Want viruses, you got it! Wait a minute… Don’t get me wrong, RIM and Apple have both let in some bizarre stuff on their respective App stores, some of which even worked like garbage within the OS. The odds are in their favour though, that Google is going to get a ton of malware and viruses in comparison to Apple, MS and RIM. People will surely disguise viruses as porn, and so much more. There’s nothing in place to prevent this from happening.
In terms of hardware, any hardware maker can release an Android-enabled device. Sound great, but unlike MS who has very strict guidelines for hardware, Google’s aren’t anywhere near that strict. That means Android is going to show up on just about every device. Remember folks, its completely free! That’s awesome, but again, it will surely be a double-edged sword. You’re guaranteed the basic features will always be present no matter which device you buy, but two weeks later your hardware may be out of date. This is something Google is completely aware of, and to be perfectly blunt, doesn’t give a crap about. They’re offering their services for free, so that’s life. If you buy an Android device, you need to be aware of this. It means their platform will likely be the most fragmented of all. Imagine buying a new Android device today like the Nexus One, and then by next week it’s out of date because the OS is free and updated so often to continuously add new features. The device won’t be powerful enough to support a large majority of the features Google announced this past week, for example. They even have a more complicated OS update system than MS. At least MS can assure basic hardware configurations, but with Android anything goes. That means the carrier will be the one to release the updates in order to figure out which version of the OS can be run on each individual piece of hardware.
Then there’s the App store. People are going to have to be ultra careful which apps they download on their specific devices. If you can’t run Android 6.7, you won’t be able to download the latest and greatest apps. Sure this is true of the other three platforms as well, but the big difference here is the time in-between updates. With Android, there could be monthly OS updates, which will make hardware become legacy in no time at all. So it’s going to be essential people know what they’re downloading before they do it. They can’t just hit up the App store and download away; they need to ensure everything on their device is compatible with whatever they download. It sounds like it’s going to work similar to the desktop market, except devices will age far quicker.
So those are the fundamental changes we’re about to see in the mobile space. Remember right now I’m only talking smartphones, not tablets and other gadgets. I’m very excited about this future, but also a little fearful. I love my iPhone, and I really think Apple has done a great job of adding features, but without competition I doubt I’d have cut and paste right now. The problem with Apple’s strategy is that you can’t always get apps you want or features you wish you had, like Flash. Yes it’s a battery hog, and yes it runs choppy, but it’ll be on Android. I’m fairly positive it won’t make it to every device, but at least it’s an option. Again though, there are costs with Google’s strategy. Is Flash worth a virus stealing all my contact numbers, and other personal data? Don’t forget RIM and Microsoft as well, both are offering some very impressive features, but in the face of a free OS, can anyone really compete?
I’m kind of curious what you think of all this. I’ve laid out most of the cards, and now you should chime in. This isn’t really looking at the market share, which we all know Google will be the champion because of the free OS, but more a look at where we’re headed and what you feel is the best strategy for you. Do you love the prospects of a free OS that can outdate your phone in a week? Are you more inclined to enjoy security and reliability that Apple and RIM’s models offer? Do you like MS’s take where they’re sort of in the middle with a powerful OS, but questionable future-proofing of devices?
So now I leave the floor to you.