So here's the thing: The mobile platform wars are over, and you won. (Part I.)
The tech and financial press are in universal agreement, that it's a two horse race between Apple and Android. The smaller players such as Windows Phone, BlackBerry, FirefoxOS, Ubuntu Phone, Sailfish OS and Tizen may all get a mention but it's almost always as an afterthought. iPhone and Android dominate the market.
This two horse race is expressed to us in the parlance of market capitalism and corporate finance, as a competition between Apple and Samsung or Apple and Google. Graphs and statistics in numerous articles show market capitalisation, profit realisation, market share, stock price and so on for the companies, to form the basis of a comparative analysis between them.
Yet this analysis is, pretty much, horseshit.
Take the first, Apple vs Samsung. Samsung is by far the most successful Android device vendor (more on this later) but they are not the only vendor. A comparison of Apple versus Samsung missed the point: Apple the vendor is not competing against Samsung the vendor. Apple the vendor is competing against Android the platform, supported by many vendors.
Samsung could disappear tomorrow and Apple would still have an Android problem. Android is bigger than Samsung.
Taking the second, Apple vs Google. Superficially, this is a clash between platforms, Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Holistically, it's actually a competition between ideologies. The proprietary, Closed Source, Walled Garden of Apple's iOS versus the Open Source, Free Software of Google's Android. Where Apple keeps its software and its platform entirely locked down, Android is entirely free for anyone to take and use. A significant difference in approach to software development philosophy and methodology.
A symptom of this is that Android Apps work on other platforms. FirefoxOS, Sailfish, Ubuntu Phone, Tizen and even Blackberry can run the majority of Android applications and are entirely entitled to do so. Likewise, anyone and everyone is entitled to take the Android source code (much of which comes from the underlying Linux community) and create their own platform. Better yet, such a software concoction will work on all currently purchased smartphones in addition to devices manufactured in the future.
Google could disappear tomorrow and Apple would still have an Android problem. Android is bigger than Google.
Ideology is the key differentiator. The ideology of Open Source and Free Software guarantees the eventual domination of Android (or an Android-derived or Android-esque) platform because it is the Great Leveller of the mobile market. Handset manufacturers, software developers,service providers and network carriers compete in the market as equals, entirely because the platform software that they use is free to obtain, modify and to distribute.
And it's a Jungle Technocracy: survival of the fittest. When one vendor wanes, another waxes. Consumers are empowered, as the vendors fight to the death for the cheapest and most compelling products to tempt us into a purchase.
Apple brought an iOS knife to a platform gunfight. Android brought a worldwide army. And it's beginning to show, as iPhone falls functionally ever further behind in the great mobile technology arms race.
Here ends part I. In part II, I'll try to convince you not to buy a Samsung smartphone.
-SRA. Auckland, 25/iii/2012. (reposted.)
So here's the thing: Fragmentation is a feature, not a bug -unless it evolves into decommoditisation. (Part II)
I want you to purchase and Android smartphone. Because it's the best platform, with the brightest future, affording you the consumer the greatest freedom.
But I want you to buy it from a manufacturer other than Samsung. Buy your next smartphone from HTC, Motorola, LG, Sony, Huawei, Asus, ZTE, or any of the plethora of other Android manufacturers. Just don't buy from Samsung. Here's why.
A common criticism of Android is that it is 'fragmented' -meaning that a version from one vendor is often slightly different from the version of Android available from another vendor, causing incompatibilities. This is presented as a weakness, a natural consequence of the 'free for all' nature Free Software and Open Source in general and of Android in particular.
Handset vendors (like those listed above) compete with one another, within the Android ecosystem. They obtain Android for free from Google and then customise it, as they are entitled to do, endeavouring to differentiate themselves from their competitors in the constant and bitter struggle to win your custom. This causes incompatibilities, as the often proprietary customisations and add-ons to Android may not be shared between vendors and back to Android in a timely fashion, if at all.
Which sounds pretty bad. Only it isn't. It's actually rather good, because there are constraints and because the meritocracy of software development encourages good ideas to be, eventually, appropriated or otherwise shared. Good ideas win sales for an Android vendor and bad ideas lose sales. As good ideas proliferate and the bad ideas that are the slowest members of the herd are cast aside, the broader Android ecosystem improves.
This is the competitive/collaborative software ecology of the Open Source and Free Software development methodology. It's as Darwinian as bacteria in a petri dish or Human Evolution outside of the Texas School Board.
Vendors are constrained in how far from the path of mainline Android evolution their silicon life forms can deviate, because they need to maintain compatibility with the Apps and Services available in the broader Android marketplace. And of course, with future versions of the Android platform. Stray too far and the vendor is on its own, looking as forlorn as does lonely old Apple.
These ideas were first espoused in the seminal 1999 essay entitled The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond. It's as relevant today as it was then. Give it a read.
Mr Raymond is important to my polemic here in another regard: he exposed a very explicit threat to this cosy software development meritocracy. It was espoused by an employee of Microsoft Corporation in a document leaked to him that became known as the Halloween Documents of 1988.
The threat was the use of a term: “decommoditisation” a concept that was eventually encapsulated in common techie parlance as the “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish” strategy adopted by Microsoft Corporation.
Back in the late 90s, Microsoft faced the same conundrum vendors in the mobile space face today: how do you compete with free? Free software was marching inexorably up the software stack, from protocols to platforms, operating systems to applications, with the result that Microsoft's market for commercial software was being cannibalised.
Their answer was decommoditisation: taking the freely available protocols that underlie the Internet and other technologies and making them proprietary, so that consumers and other vendors would be forced to purchase them or the applications built upon them. Breaking compatibility, in order to rebuild technology in their own, commercially controlled image. Microsoft Corporation spent the next decade pursuing this policy with the web, the Internet and Java, amongst a host of other technologies, to short term gain but little long term avail.
In the end, humans are behind technology. And our species has as natural an inclination to collaborate as as we do to compete, when it's in our interests. Microsoft was (and is) a strong member of our herd but the interests of the many outweighed the ambitions of the few. Today Microsoft is as much a contributor and consumer of collaborative technologies as any other major vendor.
But it was a close run thing. Which brings us back to Samsung, which is today in an analogous position to that which Microsoft found itself in a decade ago.
75% of the smartphones sold worldwide last quarter were Android phones. Of those, 80% were manufactured by Samsung. Seeking to control their own destiny, Samsung perceives an opportunity to break from the herd..
Samsung heavily customises Android and develops a proprietary platform alternative called Tizen, which is compatible with Android Apps. With overwhelming market share, Samsung could become the reference implementation for Android, fork the project, decommoditise the Android platform and break compatibility. Whilst unlikely to succeed long term, such a strategy would disrupt the Android ecosystem significantly.
Which can be prevented. By your choice of manufacturer for your next Android phone. Phones from other Android vendors are just as good.
Here ends part II. In part III, I'll explore the manner in which vendors intend to leverage their market share in ancillary markets into the mobile market and offer an appraisal of some of the smaller vendors.
-SRA, Auckland, 25/iii/2012. (reposted.)