Why we mustn’t allow smartphones to become a 2 or 3 horse race

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.

19 Responses to “Why we mustn’t allow smartphones to become a 2 or 3 horse race”

  1. dont forget meego. or all the various distros that run on openmoko

  2. I think part of it is builtin brain structures that most people have. They are built to make decision making easier by cutting down the choices to us/them kind of behaviours. This works well when apes are figuring out who gets the fruit from the tree.. not so well for us currently.

    In any case, because people make such decisions, markets tend towards a 4-5 level tier system: Big guy with large share, medium guy as alternative choice with smaller share, small guy with little share, and little guys. Now depending on how the market works out.. the little guys may altogether may have the majority of the market. They also are usually where innovation comes from in established markets. They just rarely become anything other than the new small guy before being “eaten” up by big or medium guy.

    The long term little guys stick to being little and enjoying it. They may get a lot of flack about not being big or medium guy.. but they don’t care. They are having fun and doing what keeps them going. They innovate new things and then get out of the way of big or medium guy when they copy that thing.

  3. Well, HP is doing everything exactly like Palm. Send out the TouchPad prematurly to garner really bad reviews only to update it a few weeks later with most of the issues fixed. But still the bad reviews stick around and the Touchpad sells like cold fries.
    I had the Pre and I hated the hardware. It was so fragile and flimsy. It sucked. The software was elegant in some respects and there were a few nice apps.
    Now I have a Defy and with Cyanogenmod it is the 10x better smartphone. Lots of apps. Great speach recognition etc. And it is build to last with a awesome screen.
    I think HP does everything exactly like Palm and we all know how that turned out. Just read up on precentral the last few days and you will see what I mean.
    The N9 seems to be the way better choice than the Pre3, even with Nokias neglect. So if we get a 4 or 5 horse race my bets are on Meego more than they are on WebOS or BlackberryOS.

  4. @Tom, the N9 is a fine choice, as long as you live in Kazakhstan, which is about the only place they’re releasing it, and don’t mind buying a stillborn ecosystem in Harmattan.

  5. @directhex,

    That is BS. You can get them in Austria, Switzerland and other countries directly from carriers and on Amazon most likely everywhere else (I know UK and Germany).

    And yeah btw, WebOS and the Pre3 are dead.

  6. @Tom, whoop whoop, I can import a QWERTZ device via Amazon Marketplace from a random non-existent scam company. I shall do a little dance.

  7. @directhex,
    ????The N9 is a _touchscreen_ phone, you can just set it to QWERTY.
    And Amazon has better scam protection than most other webstores.

  8. @directhex,
    And as I said HP discontiues all WebOS devices. That would mean no Pre3 for you. Read tech up on tech news.

  9. @Tom, yeah, no Pre3 for me.

    Except it’s already shipped, and is currently in a DHL depot in the East Midlands.

  10. Very true. But should developers encourage the use and growth of systems like iOS or WP7 that impose limitations unthinkable of until a few years ago, e.g. mandatory application review, no Bluetooth file transfers etc.?

  11. @Giorgos, I’d like to think it’s up to consumers to make an informed decision as to whether to enter a gilded cage. But I’m lying to myself, since consumers are idiots.

  12. […] – Is it time for HP to pull out of the consumer mobile market? I've blogged on the topic, FWIW. http://apebox.org/wordpress/rants/391/ Pre3 unboxing video on […]

  13. Too late, WebOS is down. http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/hp-punts-on-webos-discontinues-touchpad-cuts-outlook/55386

  14. Why not Debian on your smartphone?

  15. Yeah, pouring hundreds of millions to your open source platform (X, kernel, GTK+, Qt (oh yeah, this doesn’t count because of Monofanboyness), etc.) is actively sabotaging the platform.
    It’s nothing like the great job done by Mono folk when they port Silverlight for web usage and forget all browsers that aren’t Firefox or Chrome. Actually Moonlight doesn’t work correctly in Firefox or Chrome either so… Thanks guys for not sabotaging the platform referred as “web”.

    And describing Opera as upstart when it comes to web is like describing British Empire or Commonwealth realms as upstarts.

    However, I agree with you that we do have more options and we need more options than Apple & Google. And the “hype” around them is greatly exaggerated.

    PS. WebOS does not have the best multitasking, Maemo had better and Harmattan has the best. Trust me, I’ve tried it.

  16. Pretty sure HP just dropped webOS a couple of days ago, I still might get a pre though as I dont care for ecoystem, but if not ill probably get an N9 . Its sad that first Nokia meego droped the ball, then hp quit the markey comeplety, so we are left with blackberry, windows phone both of which are struggling, and the IOS and Android, but not forgetting Bada lol

  17. You’re missing bada!

  18. […] said this months ago, it’s just too little and too late for both Nokia and Microsoft. See http://apebox.org/wordpress/rants/391/ Reply With […]

  19. […] share, because nothing will curb monopolistic exploitation batter than serious competition. http://apebox.org/wordpress/rants/391/ Reply With […]

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