The State of the Mobile Economy – according to me: Fragmentation

This is the first in a series of short (and hopefully insightful) glimpses of what was important in the mobile universe in 2010 and what that means for 2011.

A common theme in 2010 has been the battle of the mobile operating systems (OS’s) – Android vs iOS vs BlackBerry OS vs Symbian vs Windows Phone 7 etc. It reminds me of the early days of the browser war when the Internet was forming as a commercial entity or even, perhaps, the battle for the desktop we saw early in the PC era (remember Windows vs MAC OS vs OS/2?).

I think what separates the mobile OS battle is the sheer size of the market – there is enough room for many, if not all, current operating systems to build a substancial user and revenue base. The trick for them is to NOT do what Microsoft did in the late 1990’s and through to a couple of years ago. Microsoft’s PocketPC and then Windows Mobile operating system was the dominant OS on mobile devices for close to a decade. They gave it away for free and it quickly became to most fragmented OS on the planet – so much so that hardware manufacturers created custom interfaces to make it seem more elegant on their hardware. This fragmentation led the Microsoft mobile team to reconsider their entire strategy, stop development on the current code base and start over.

Two years later (more like 100 years in the mobile era), Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7. Perhaps it is too late to be a force in 2011 but their lessons should be taken seriously as more mobile OS’s get into the game.

Android – the king of fragmentation?

There is no doubt about the momentum that Android witnessed in 2010 and will continue to witness in 2011. There is also no doubt that Android will become the dominant smartphone OS on the planet – perhaps in 2011. There is also no doubt that Android is following in Microsoft’s footsteps of fragmentation. As the OS has spread there are telltale signs they are falling into the same trap as Microsoft did with Windows Mobile. Some simple examples? The fact that hardware manufacturers are adding the same interface layers on top of the OS the same way they did with WM. The fact that all handsets won’t and don’t run the same version of the OS. The fact that tablets are being released with an OS that is made for a smartphone, not a tablet.

2011 will be a challenge for the Android market place as well as developers get serious about this platform but quickly realize they will have to build for many input mechanisms, screen sizes and OS limitations or else knowingly abandon a certain size of the market and focus on a few phones running the latest OS.

Is BlackBerry any better?

RIM has always had this issue – multiple screen sizes, resolutions, OS customizations based on carrier requests and now touch versus keyboard input and, oh yeah, the new QNX tablet OS. This will be a trying year as RIM pulls all this together because, quite frankly, for a company that controls the entire manufacturing process – from hardware to software – they are surprisingly fragmented. Not sure why or how this happened but hopefully they fix this in 2011.

What about iOS?

So far Apple seems to have avoided the fragmentation that both Google and RIM are experiencing but they are on a slippery slope. The iPad required developers to recreate their apps but one could get away with only replacing the images with larger ones and a number of modifications to accomodate things like the bigger built in software keyboard and screen orientation (a big task on its own for some). With the rumours swirling around about the different screen sized iPad’s that might make their way into our hands in 2011, they run the risk of adding to developer woes and start really fragmenting their market. The jury is still out on this one.

2011 – the year of even more complexity?

This year will add even more complexity and, thus, fragmentation, to these platforms so be warned. It often gets harder right before it gets the easiest and that is what’s in store for us over the next 12 months.

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of UNTETHER.tv and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

  • Cameron

    I would also watch very closely to what happens with HTML5 & Webkit2…especially with Apple. I think Steve has a trick up his sleeve yet as he has backed both very heavily. There are also some great cross-platform IDE’s out there allowing for “build once run anywhere” capability. All Smartphone’s are HTML5 compatible unlike the desktop.

  • HTML5 is the wildcard for sure. It really does benefit everyone but there will always be a certain need/desire/requirement for applications on the device – hence the cross-platform platforms you mentioned. It is going to be an interesting year that’s for sure!

    Thanks for the comment.

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