AT&T | mobile unwrapped
Consider where the mobile universe was about a year ago. It was rich with competing operating systems and ecosystems. Users had a broad variety of choice: iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, webOS, Blackberry OS 6, and Symbian. MeeGo seemed to be well on its way there as well. Each had experienced its own degree of success, but there was choice which to many is always a good thing. Yet here we are today in a rapidly accelerating state of contraction. This is a large issue, comprised of several major considerations.
MeeGo never made it to market, atleast here in the US. Nokia abandoned it and subsequently did the same with Symbian – a platform that had a large amount of users everywhere from developing nations to major powers in the west and the east. webOS is for the foreseeable future an OS without a future at least on mobile devices, though that could change in the next few weeks. RIM and its BlackBerry Empire seems to be caught in a death spiral as it slowly bleeds both consumer and enterprise customers, unable at its top most levels to get its act together.
It feels as though consumers are most comfortable in a binary OS world. In the much more established desktop computing field this means PC and Mac, Windows and OS X. It feels as though the mobile space is headed in a similar direction occupied in mindshare and sales by Apple and Google, iOS and Android. It’s as though this arena is destined to eventually achieve parity with with its desktop computing brethren, propelled by a paucity of competition and a choke-hold on the minds of the buying public. Is this end result inevitable? Some would say the need for two major choices is just human nature. Consider in the US political system, the players are Republicans and Democrats. Buying a cola? Most would go for a Coke or a Pepsi. Who in the mainstream considers RC Cola? Who considers the Green Party? This is an oversimplification for comparisons sake, but you see the parallels.
Contraction with any business is generally cyclic. A need is created, many business are formed to fill that need. Some dominate and some fizzle out. Eventually businesses, merge. It’s the nature of the beast. Right now in the US we’re in the throws of a major ‘merger’ between an industry giant – AT&T, and the scrappy little T-Mobile. The giant was the first to retreat from unlimited data plans. The little guy offers reasonable rates and unlimited data as an option. The big guy offers a wide variety of choice in OS and form factor. The other offers a comparatively small amount of options for a handset. As a consumer, how do you choose? That depends on need, want, location, and income level.
This situation is very similar to the OS question, only the actors are more scarce as the progression of the business is much farther a long. It still affects the way we as users and enthusiasts of mobile devices will be able to operate going forward. With less carriers to compete, the need to offer better value and innovation decreases exponentially. How long will it be before Verizon acquires Sprint? Again it feels almost inevitable. The end results of this can’t be good for anyone other than the shareholders of the carriers.
The problem of ”developers” is as complex as that of the mobile OS issue. The motivation of most developers is to make money, after all in the end it is their business, not a hobby. Can a great developer make money developing for a small platform in the volume that a great developer can on a larger platform? If you lack a large customer base then it is certainly harder to achieve the sales that you could on a larger platform with the same app. Conversely, can a great developer gain the exposure a great app needs to make money against the hordes of competition that comes with a large app ecosystem and a large customer base with a small attention span? There must be a balance to be found in there – a ratio of paying customers to the size-of-ecosystem that is an analysts dream. It’s an interesting question for sure.
Even the average developer who isn’t in it for the money, who provides an app for free with no ads, still wants exposure and downloads. The questions posed above still apply to these developers. They want exposure and downloads. Why else spend the time and mental capital to develop an app?
Once again contraction rears its head. As the smaller OS’s disappear, and the remaining developers migrate to other platforms: how does the independent developer make money and/or gain exposure? This has always been a problem, but it is magnified in extreme as one by one the opportunities and space provided by a wealth of platforms disintegrates. Some might say this is a natural evolution of the space, but how many great apps will we as consumers miss out on as a result? We’ll never know. Perhaps as part of this progression, we’ll start to see some wonderful web apps emerge from the forced exodus the death of competing platforms create.
What does it all mean?
Who cares? (Authors note: wouldn’t it be terrible if I left it there?) The truth is the general consumer who buys these devices just wants something they can use every day that doesn’t give them a large amount of hassle technically or financially. However, since you’re here – you must care. For those of us who read articles like these and are genuinely passionate about this space in more than a passing way, it should be troubling but not surprising. More than ever we must be vigilant as consumers in calling foul when and where we see error, and keep an open mind when it comes to the mobile platforms that still exist. The last thing this space needs is devolve into “Mac vs. PC: the Sequel”. That won’t do anyone any good, even if there’s not much we can do to stop it.