Is Mobile like Computing in the 1990′s

Some words were exchanged on the internet this weekend about whether Android and iOS market share and whether Android is analogous to Microsoft in the personal computing revolution of the ’90′s(ish). I tend to think not, but first to clarify a few things:

Points were made & points were missed as Fred Wilson posted a follow up to an earlier post where he recommended devs program for Android as it will be the dominant share & he supported this with Comscore numbers that showed iOS stagnant in the marketplace, interpreted by Business Insider as being “dead in the water” based on the same info. John Gruber posted at Daring Fireball and Marco Arment posted at Marco.org that, generally speaking, the iOS platform is larger than the iPhone as the iPod touch and the iPad weren’t represented in the numbers and that the iOS platform is more profitable to developers to boot.

Without having read through hundreds of responses to posts such as these, I think that there are a few things to clarify on this subject. Each of the above are right in their own way.

  • Fred Wilson has stated before that he is looking predominately at always-on, always-connected and always-with-you devices. iPod touches & iPads are not 100% in all three of these categories, so he sees them as not relevant for a business that is using mobile to target customers in a time-sensitive, geographically relevant way. The key here is that mobile is an extension of a larger business opportunity but is really only relevant when it leverages all the power of the mobile network as well as the device.
  • From the other side of things, Gruber and Arment are looking at the platforms from the perspective of small or independent developers who are looking to profit directly from an app they have developed or a service that supports the app. At this point not only does the more expansive interpretation of iOS devices become important, but so does the relatively frictionless iOS store experience both from the perspective of the consumer and the dev.

Moving beyond that, is Android like Windows in the 90′s? It has been argued that it benefits from a wider range of hardware & carriers leading to a similar commoditization that happened with computers in the early to mid-90′s. iOS is said to be on the high end of the spectrum in terms of hardware price, services (due to more constrained availability through carrier contracts) and even app pricing. So Apple is doomed to play a minority role at best or, at worst, slide into irrelevance and wither away.

I don’t believe that things will play out in the same way as the adoption of computing did two decades ago and here are a few reasons why:

  • People bought computers and then figured out what to do with them. People are clearer about what they want from a smartphone than they were when they bought their first computers. Email, address books, social networks, internet search, news, weather, reference all have prior expectations for the next generation of smartphone adopters & platforms must live up to or exceed that baseline. None of these existed in any real form when people were buying computers in the early ’90s and most still didn’t have the kinks worked out at the end of that decade.
  • Early personal computers did not really replace anything except possibly a typewriter. Note that I didn’t even touch on music, photos and video, the handling of which have their own expectations as defined by other devices, whether owned by the smartphone shopper or by a close friend/relative. Purchasers of smartphones may be replacing standalone devices—iPod, camera, video camera—as well as their ‘feature phone’ and will judge devices on a wide set of parameters as a result.
  • Compatibility is not the issue it once was. It used to matter if a disk from one computer would be readable when inserted into another, be it a friend’s or on your desk at work/home. Files are generally cross-platform compatible and physical networking and exchange of files is the exception rather than the rule. This breaks a huge tie to any specific brand or platform. Note, though, that there is a huge iTunes ecosystem that perpetuates loyalty to that platform and those roots grow deeper and stronger with each passing year and million devices sold.
  • Computing had little or no ecosystem. I almost didn’t include this as it seems to live with bullet one above, but I think it’s important enough to stand alone. Even if people knew what they wanted the computer for (like keep track of recipes or do their bookkeeping & taxes) there was not a solid ecosystem to support it. Modern ecosystems assure compatibility and standardisation, afford broad exposure and consumer ratings & reviews as well as a payment system and direct revenue stream for developers. Some will say that Microsoft ruled because of a stronger or more diverse ecosystem but I feel that it was mostly a perceived benefit rather than a real one and certainly pales in comparison to the expectations of today. Mobile hardware may or may not be judged on the viability of its ecosystem, but the standards have definitely changed since the ’90s.

This is obviously a deep vein to mine & I look forward to exploring it with consumers. Overall I tend to side more with Gruber & Arment insofar as the short term money for independents is much more likely to come from iOS and the overall mobile computing experience will continue to be shaped by non-phone devices in addition to those sold by carriers. While I definitely understand the Android as most penetrated smartPHONE platform, I disagree that this is analogous to the PC wars of the 1990′s and think that it is an erroneous reason to choose a platform as a basis for development.

 

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