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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mobile OS Platforms, Competition, & Generativity
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As Berin and I have noted here before (here and here), there seems to be no shortage of competition and innovation in the mobile operating system (OS) space. We've got:

  1. Apple's iPhone platform,

  2. Microsoft's Windows Mobile,

  3. Symbian,

  4. Google's Android,

  5. BlackBerry,

  6. Palm OS (+ Palm's new WebOS),

  7. the LiMo platform, and

  8. OpenMoko.

I am missing any? I don't think so. Even if I have, this is really an astonishing degree of platform competition for a network-based industry. Network industries are typically characterized by platform consolidation over time as both application developers and consumers flock to just a couple of standards -- and sometimes just one -- while others gradually fade away. But that has not yet been the case for mobile operating systems. I just can't see it lasting, however. As I argued in my essay on "Too Much Platform Competition?," I would think that many application providers would be clamoring for consolidation to make it easier to develop and roll out new services. Some are, and yet we still have more than a half-dozen mobile OS platforms on the market.

Regardless, the currently level of platform competition also seems to run counter to the thesis set forth by Jonathan Zittrain and others who fear the impending decline or death of digital "generativity." That is, technologies or networks that invite or allow tinkering and all sorts of creative uses are supposedly "dying" or on the decline because companies are trying to exert more control over proprietary or closed systems.

You will recall that in his book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Zittrain casts the iPhone as the enemy of generativity and suggests that more and more devices will look like it in the future. (Ignore the fact that the iPhone becomes more open to 3rd party apps with each passing day and that Apple's latest iPhone OS was cracked in a matter of hours after release). Zittrain and many others have been beating this gloomy 'generativity-is-dying' drum now for awhile, so you would think that they would have some substantive evidence to point to in defense of their thesis.

But today's mobile OS market certainly doesn't seem to help them make their case -- whether we are talking about OS-level competition or innovation at the applications level by third parties. Indeed, take a look at the latest PC World magazine in which Harry McCracken conducts a "Smart Phone OS Smackdown" to see how the the current mobile operating systems stack up and what they offer consumers in terms of both built-in functionality and third-party add-ons. It's the third-party stuff that is most of interest to our inquiry here regarding the Zittrain-ian fear of declining mobile generativity. Here's what PC World reports about the third-party apps available for 5 major mobile OS platforms:

Apple iPhone: "Just months after Apple opened up the iPhone to other developers, thousands of programs are available, and downloading them directly via the App Store is a cakewalk."

Windows Mobile: "The best thing about this OS is the sheer variety of available applications in every category. Utilities such as Lakeridge Software's WisBar Advance let you tweak the interface's look, feel, and functionality, compensating for some of its deficiencies. But you get no built-in app store à la iPhone OS and Android."

Google Android: "Developers are just beginning to hop on the Android bandwagon. The iPhone-like Market service lets you download apps directly to the phone from Google; unlike with the iPhone, you can also snag programs from third-party merchants such as Handango. ... Android's potential is gigantic, especially if it winds up on scads of phones."

BlackBerry: "Once upon a time, users didn't have many BlackBerry programs to choose from, but recently the market has boomed--thousands, from productivity apps to games, are available now. Windows Mobile and S60 have even more bountiful selections, though. Currently BlackBerry has no over-the-air storefront comparable to Apple's App Store or Android Market. RIM's BlackBerry storefront is expected to launch in March 2009."

Symbian: "A profusion of useful S60-compatible applications is available at sites such as Handango--one of the deepest libraries for any platform, thanks to Symbian's long life span and wide usage."

Importantly, McCracken didn't even take a look at the Palm OS or Palm's aftermarket offerings, and he failed to mention the significant "home brew" market for hacks and add-ons that countless people like me take advantage of through sites like PPC Geeks and Howard's Forums. Regardless, as the PC World article illustrates, there's lots of innovation and generativity out there in the mobile space today. Of course, it's true that Apple's iPhone isn't quite as open as the rest of the platforms out there. As McCracken notes of the iPhone:

But the limitations that Apple puts on third-party apps--they can't run in the background or access data other than their own--place major obstacles in the way of everything from instant messengers to office suites. And Apple, the sole distributor of iPhone software, has declined to make available some useful applications that developers have submitted.

But as I have said before, there is a simple solution to that: Just buy a different phone!! No one has any sort of God-given right to a perfectly "open" OS. You know what you're getting when you buy an iPhone and realize that it may not be perfectly open to all third-party apps or hacks. But hey, it's still a pretty damn spectacular phone. Apparently it's even good enough for the generativity-worshiping Jonathan Zittrain, who I outed at this New America Foundation debate as an iPhone user himself!

Bottom line: Generativity in the mobile marketplace is alive and well. And, contrary to what worrywarts like Zittrain and other critics claim, the trend is clearly in the direction of MORE openness and generativity over time, not less.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 5:02 PM | Economics , Innovation , Wireless

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