Smartphone platforms. There are the big three: iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Then there’s RIM’s upcoming attempt at saving itself from sure death with BlackBerry 10. Samsung may also be trying to reduce its dependence on Android with Tizen. Then you’ve got Ubuntu, the world’s most popular Linux distro, now being ported to phones. webOS is somewhere, lost in the sea of open source software. It would also be foolish to forget the outcome of Nokia’s abandonment of MeeGo Sailfish, although maybe it is very much forgettable…
Seeing the problem? I listed no less than eight entirely separate smartphone platforms in that opening paragraph. There are probably many more that have slipped my mind at the moment, and will probably never return to my thoughts. Ever.
There is simply no way that the industry will be able to sustain more than three or four large platforms. Right now, there are two: iOS and Android, with Windows Phone clipping at their heels as Microsoft hopelessly tries to claw back the respectable market share it used to have. I think it’ll get somewhere, eventually, maybe still in third place, but with a share of the market large enough not to ignore. But it doesn’t matter what I think, because it doesn’t change the fact that the market is about to become incredibly saturated, and there will be many losers (some would say webOS has already lost, and I definitely won’t argue with that).
But why, some of you will ask, can’t there be a multitude of platforms? Isn’t competition good? Of course competition is good, but these platforms do not offer anything significantly different that can compete with the big boys. Functionally, they’re all very similar, and they’re not pushing or changing anything by being this way. There is nothing that makes me say “wow” about any alternative operating system I have seen so far; in fact, about the only one I even bothered to read the full marketing material for was Ubuntu.
However, it’s not just the monotony of these offerings that will result in their demise. If everyone and their mother were building a platform, what would developers do? Would they invest in developing their apps for as many of these platforms as they could? Of course not. They’d stick to the big ones, and even Windows Phone is struggling to build its app marketplace. Would you buy a smartphone that couldn’t get the apps for the services you use every day?
Then there are the problems that are specific to whichever path each company has decided to take — oh, wait, almost all are taking the same path: open source. Great. Manufacturers can use your operating system in their handsets with no cost to them. Surely that means someone will give it a go? What a pity then that Android is also free, and they have no reason to look at a “me too!” product. And if you are building a closed system, good luck trying to get someone to pay for your platform.
2013 will be a year of many crash-and-burns. These companies are better off investing their expertise somewhere else instead of playing a game of “let’s mimic the big guys and cross our fingers for success.” If you want to rise up and cause hell in the smartphone market, wait for that all new from the ground up concept to enter your head — that big idea that even Apple and Google have missed (Microsoft missing it would be rather unremarkable). Don’t fight a losing battle; enter when you’re in it to win it.
Mitchell Farmer is a New Zealand-based CEO in the mobile accessories industry.
Image: Phone Comparison by Nik_Doof (via Flickr)