Android is to Mobile Phones as Windows was to the Computer Desktop

by Steven Masur

At the beginning of time, there were supercomputers, and they were controlled by large institutions. Now everyone has one in the palm of their hand. So what have we learned in the last 20 years about proprietary operating systems? Even the best closed systems will ultimately lose dominant market share to those that are open, easy and good enough. So Open, Easy and Good Enough wins.

In the epic battle for control of the computer desktop, nearly all of the transformers were vanquished except for Microsoft and Apple, and these two super-huge transformers battled for supremacy. In terms of market share, Microsoft won by being open and good enough. Windows would run on any hardware and you could develop any application you wanted. Furthermore, Microsoft also built a few bedrock applications to make any Windows computer “usable enough” right out of the box. This proved to be an unbeatable combination. Apple secured its bulletproof, battle-hardened and “best” segment of themarket through secrecy, guerilla warfare, sheer willpower and an unflinching attention to the user experience.

Now there is a new epic battle, and it’s just beginning. Throw away any phone that is not a smartphone. There is no such thing as “the mobile web.” Your telephone can go on the real web. The relevant operating systems are Blackberry, Apple OSX on the iPhone, Symbian, Windows Mobile, Android, and one early market starter coming late to the real party, the Palm Pre OS.

So how will this play out? My prediction is that Android will win, because it is open,
and good enough. Once again, Apple, despite its significant lead, will not win market domination. However, by using the aforementioned strategies, Android will be able to secure the bulletproof, battle-hardened and “best” market segment again. Here’s why.

Just as we needed Apple to show us that people want cute little double-clickable representations of the physical world on their computer desktop, Apple now reveals that we want a touch screen on which you can manipulate all forms of content and data manually.

…but, in addition to your manual touch screen for play, for work you probably want a fast-working keyboard, so you can actually communicate with people and enter data. Apple refuses to give us that, and wants us to buy everything from one super-mod Walmart-like walled garden company store. You want to use Verizon, Tmobile, Sprint, or anyone else except AT&T? Sorry. No. Oh, you lost your power supply, or left it plugged in next to your bed before jumping on the plane? Better go to someone who sells Apple products. One thing that IS different than before is that you can get an incredibly wide variety of applications from the AppStore. But Apple controls everything about that environment too, and it only works on Apple hardware.

Android works on any hardware. Anyone can develop for Android. Android runs on any network (although it is only launched on one US phone, on one US network to date). Android is not better than OSX on the iPhone, but it works well, and you know it will continue to improve, because its survival does not depend upon the stock value of one company. Finally, lots of big companies, like LG, Motorola, HTC and soon many others will come out with Android phones.

iPhone OSX can’t say any of these things. Symbian, despite its immense worldwide
market share, can’t say them either. Windows OS can say them, but it is difficult to use and nobody cares much about getting a Windows phone. Palm Pre? Love the OS, and the device combines a touch screen with a good usable keyboard, but long term? No. Palm is a single equipment manufacturer that can’t effectively compete alone against many large Asian, American and European manufacturers using an open platform. It is limited to beating out Apple in the “best of class” market. So to win, Palm has to beat out Apple. Rewind, repeat: “Palm has to beat out Apple.” If I were the CEO, I’d choose my battles wisely and quit too. Next up; RIM’s Blackberry beloved crackberry. Nobody has a better keyboard, nobody sends email faster or more reliably. But, even with these unassailable merits, the Blackberry mail service is super expensive, and truthfully, now that iPhone has shipped, people want their smartphone to do more, and doing more will never be quite as easy on a Blackberry as it is with an iPhone-like interface.

Blackberry is tripping over its ancient and opaque OS2-inspired menu-driven OS. So Blackberry goes the way of the Altaire, Commodore 64, DOS, Atari and everyone else who tried to beat the madness of crowds. Even if you do one thing well, eventually the masses gravitate to open, easy and good enough.

So even though it is early, I predict now that Android will win.

But don’t take this to the bank immediately. I have not addressed the question of when. There is still plenty of life left in all of the above mentioned platforms and devices, and it is still far from clear how long the future I have described might take to unfold. Also, any of the current players, or a new player could do something different and change the game. On behalf of phone users everywhere, I hope they do. That’s when things will really get fun.