Upward Mobility: Should There Be Only One?

Admittedly, the idea of Ballmer, Cook and Schmidt all battling it out Highlander-style is appealing...

As long as most people can remember, the smartphone space has been a contested one. Before the iPhone became temporarily ubiquitous, RIM and Palm were fighting it out to own the market, and today you have a plethora of platforms to choose from, including Android, iOS, Windows, and Blackberry. And because many mobile OS vendors license their products to third-party manufacturers, some mobile operating systems have little market share wars of their own, such as HTC fighting it out with Samsung and Motorola for the Android customer base.

I’ve talked before, in the context of languages, about the damage that the paradox of choice can bring to societies. Having more product choices may not make us any happier, or even lead to better products, but only create the vague uncertainty that whichever product choice we make, it wasn’t the correct one.

For obvious reasons, a monopoly doesn’t usually work out that well either, at least in mature markets with stable standards. Very few will argue that Microsoft’s most innovative years occurred during the period that they sat “fat, dumb and happy” with 90%+ desktop market share. But I would argue that there comes a time when some choices should be left to die a dignified death, and that both Windows and Blackberry mobile products are at that point.

The issue isn’t whether the new Windows 8 and Blackberry 10 phones may have some new or interesting features. The question is if the benefit of these new features outweighs the cost to the developer community, which gets passed on to the users. As someone who spends his days supporting mobile customers at a large enterprise company, I can tell you that having to support multiple handset operating systems directly detracts from our ability to deliver new product features. Even if the work on certain mobile OS ports is farmed out to a third-party, it still costs money that could have been spent internally adding new features or enhancing existing ones. QA also finds their workload multiplied by three or four, as each new version has to be tested not only on each model the company supports, but across multiple mobile platforms.

The stockholders of Blackberry and Microsoft would obviously like their mobile products to succeed, and the CEOs would be fired in an instant if they just said “Meh, let’s not pollute the space with another redundant product.” But consumers should realize the cost of keeping four mobile platforms alive instead of two will directly impact the quality of the applications they get to use. A world where Blackberry and Windows mobile died a final death would be a world where there were more and better applications for the consumer.

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  • samjwest

    There are so many reason I disagree with your premise. I feel your pain from the support standpoint. I am a software developer and we have to deal with this on a number of fronts. But the innovation and competition are what provides us with the incredible functionality we enjoy today. A lot of that innovation is by Microsoft. Apple had its day. Are they going to reinvent themselves now that their platform is outdated? I hope they do. I want that competition. We all benefit from it. If you are really sitting around lamenting the choice you’ve made because making that choice was so darn hard, then I suggest you get a grip and be thankful for the choices you had. Don’t try to break what’s working with your soap box philosophy.

  • Zigurd

    If you have a simple app and limited resources, Web apps already span all platforms. So I don’t see why users shouldn’t have a choice among 5 or 6 operating systems on 3 or 4 hardware architectures, packaged in a variety of form-factors.

    To illustrate the benefits of diversity in hardware, software, and form-factor, see how Microsoft is suffering from a dogmatic “Windows everywhere” approach when, instead, the Courier concept might have enabled them to break away from Windows on tablet platforms. Sometimes you need a fresh start and a whole new environment to foster innovation.

    More competition will create more software development cultures with distinctive characteristics. The worst apps on Android are “shovelware” ported in from iOS by the low bidder. If developers give up on write-once, run lamely everywhere, all platforms’ software will improve, and software will compete on how well it exploits the features of the platform.

    Successful software companies that make products that would have demand on all platforms will have plenty of resources to implement platform-specific designs. Meanwhile, platform and ecosystem owners will compete to get exclusives that highlight their platform features. That kind of competition will be good for developers, good for platform customers, and good for innovation, and will drive lowest-common-denominator shovelware and cheapass ports out of the market.

    Lastly, standards shouldn’t depend on single implementations. ODF documents, multimedia formats, HTML, and other formats should be editable on all platforms using tools that are native to those platforms and integrated with platform capabilities.