What’s the right number? Of software platforms I mean, for devices which are real Internet citizens. At the moment, the volume players are iOS and Android. Microsoft and HP/Palm and RIM would each like to be the third, and one of them might succeed; conceivably more than one. Would that be good?
I’m biased: Internet loyalist, Android admirer and subsequently advocate, and finally Google employee. I like variety and competition and I think a hot competitive ecosystem is best for the Internet and for Google too. I like the fresh look-and-feel ideas in WebOS and WP7, and I’d like to like Blackberry since I’m Canadian. Given those biases, It’s still not obvious whether I should wish the up-and-comers well.
Let’s talk about some numbers.
One? · We’ve lived in single-platform worlds; most obviously the lengthy Windows desktop monoculture. Also the much shorter space starting in 2007 during which the iPhone was the only interesting mobile device.
There are excellent reasons to avoid this platform count. Economists, consumer advocates, and regulators are of one mind about its downsides. It’s a reason I reached for Android first chance I got, and was so pleased when I liked what I found.
Let me have fun playing devil’s advocate for a minute: During the Windows hegemony, if you were a quality desktop app developer working in a space that Microsoft didn’t want to invade, there was a lot to like. You only had to build one binary, for a platform that wasn’t bad at covering up hardware variation and worked hard to keep your apps running through OS updates.
But yeah, it sucked if you were a CIO paying the desktop tax, or a hardware builder trying to carve out a little margin, or a startup like Netscape trying to move the user-interface needle. I wouldn’t want to go back, and I fervently hope the mobile-platform space remains a competitive market.
Two? · Where we stand now. Anyone with an idea for a compelling mobile app is probably looking at releasing it on Android and iOS first, and working on the other contenders later. Most businesses and Web sites that want “their own app” outsource to a mobile-development shop, most of whom are unreligious. The notion of being an Apple-only or Android-only shop is becoming less and less tenable.
The situation is not, in my view, terrible. To start with, the ferocious Apple-Android competition is obviously making both sides’ products better.
The mobile business is multipolar; the interests of telephone companies, device builders, OS builders, and app developers all tug at each other in complex ways. Telephone companies like having access to Apple and Android devices so they’re not existentially tied to one hardware builder at the high end. Hardware makers like to have options and thus bargaining power with OS builders. Most app developers can see the benefits of a world in which there’s not just One Big App Storekeeper.
But on the other hand, they don’t like having to build their applications twice.
Three, or Even More? · The telephone companies wouldn’t complain if more platforms reached the top tier. They have room on their shelves for loads of handsets and tablets, and have learned how to manage all those SKUs. Nor would the handset makers; any one of them might choose to concentrate on just one or two operating systems, but having choices is good and then there are lots of these guys.
For app developers, though it starts to get ugly. Building software is hard and maintaining it is hard and doing it with multiple implementations sharing little common code makes both jobs harder. Two is worse than one and three is worse than two.
We already hear bitching about having to do it twice, and there’s lively interest in technologies like Titanium and PhoneGap, and the potential for sharing code across multiple platforms. The trade-offs and upsides and downsides of these things are complex moving targets and I’m a little too close to the story to be comfortable offering an opinion. But it’s hardly controversial to say that interest is lively.
There are a lot of factions on the field. But my heart’s on my sleeve; Developers are my tribe and I think, by and large, that what’s good for them is good for consumers and for the Internet too.
I think a multi-platform world is best place for my tribe; but too many platforms is painful. And I still don’t know what the cosmically correct number is.