A very popular refrain on tech sites is that the high street cannot support multiple competing phone ecosystems. It’s a reasonable position to take. Do phone stores want to train their employees on six or seven different OSes? Do consumers understand the differences, and should they need to? Do app developers want to rewrite their app six or seven times? The obvious answer to all of these is “no”. Stores only want to train their employees once, developers want to write their app once. Choice is bad, because choice is complicated. You can have it in any colour, so long as it’s black.
The problem is, we need those competing efforts, for the entire market to increase in quality. Until the iPhone appeared on the market, Google’s nascent mobile phone OS looked more like a poor man’s Blackberry OS than what ended up shipping on the HTC Dream and later devices. Windows Phone 7 didn’t ship with any multitasking at all – and now the Mango update will be incorporating a multitasking model largely thieved from WebOS. iOS only just got support for updating the phone’s firmware without being plugged into a host PC via USB, something which a few Android devices and all WebOS devices have always supported.
Consider, for comparison, the web browser market. It would be easiest if there was only one web browser – but that browser would quickly stagnate and cause pain, the way Internet Explorer 6 did when it had almost the entire market. It wasn’t until upstarts like Firefox and Opera and Chrome and more started showing off their unique ideas that the entire pack started improving – including IE, with IE9 supporting most of the features that the competition introduced.
Every smartphone shipping today has something to offer that other devices don’t – and every smartphone OS shipping today has something to offer that other OSes don’t. iOS has the widest app catalog. Android is Open Source (FSVO “Open”). WebOS has the best multitasking, and “Just Type”. Windows Phone 7 offers a drastic new user interface paradigm. Blackberry OS is built for messaging tasks, and has the best sysadmin control. Symbian is… well, okay, sometimes there’s a time to let go – but the same applies for web browsers too.
Smartphones are communication devices that people use every day of their lives, and every consumer has different needs – we shouldn’t try to push them into an ill-fitting category, just to satisfy ourselves that “it’s probably only possible for three mobile platforms to succeed in the mass-market”. For some people, Blackberry OS really *is* the best choice, and no matter how much you pretend, an iPhone would enhance their lives. And as for the app question… tough shit. Plenty of app developers only target iOS even though Android is overtaking in the market, and if they really want to reach as many people as possible, then use a cross-platform framework like PhoneGap or some of Xamarin’s products. Single-ecosystem apps are a low-effort push to reach as many people possible with minimal investment, and the only way to satisfy that class of developer is to eliminate ALL competition in the marketplace – iOS-only devs are this decade’s IE6-only devs.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I for one am sick of all the tales of doom and gloom that immediately surround any effort which isn’t iOS or pure Android. We have a marketplace of ideas, which we should be celebrating, and not dumping on. I’m eagerly awaiting delivery of my HP Pre 3, with all the unique possibilities it offers me which simply another Android device wouldn’t have. And the big difference between WebOS and Nokia’s Maemo/MeeGo efforts, for those who are still doubtful, is HP haven’t spent years trying to deliberately sabotage the platform. Give it time. If I’m wrong, the worst-case scenario is being lumbered with an awesome phone.