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Platform Wars—They Fight, You Lose

As smartphones become an ever-increasingly important segment of the overall mobile phone market, more attention is being focused on the software that runs on these devices – namely, the operating system, the applications and the services. In a very short period of time, 3rd party applications have become all the rage, and the heavy hitters in the smartphone OS space are vying for the attention of these application developers.

Everyone knows about the iPhone, Android and Windows. Nokia is trying hard to drive their Trolltech unit’s Qt application environment across its entire portfolio of MeeGo and Symbian devices. Samsung has come out with bada and in Japan, DoCoMo and its partners are working to develop a common application framework that can run on top of either Symbian or various flavors of Linux. WebOS, LiMo and others complete the picture.

While this is progress from the days in which every OEM produced a phone running on a proprietary, closed platform, I’m not sure it’s that much better. In my opinion, there are still too many platforms out there, all with very different application runtime frameworks.

This means for an app developer to monetize their product across all the major smartphone platforms, significant portions of the application must be re-written. In many cases, the re-writes happen serially, meaning the time-to-market for that app can vary greatly from one platform to another. The developer and the consumer are both losers in this scenario. Here’s why: Say you’re using a smartphone made by “OEM w” using “Operating System x”. Your friend, using “OEM y’s” smartphone with “Operating System z”, shows you this cool app that they just purchased from “y’s” online apps store. You go to your app store to look for that app, but lo and behold, it’s not there, since the apps developer prioritized customers of “OEM y” first, and thus developed on “OS z” instead. Net result: disappointment for the owner of “smartphone w” and a lost sale for the developer of the augmented reality app.

I’m not going to say that the world would be a better place if all smartphones ran the same OS and application framework; on the contrary, competition is good. Unfortunately, there are still so many choices out there that consumers and apps developers both pay the price. I believe the industry will consolidate on fewer platforms going forward, but there will be more pain to come for the consumer and the developer while the Platform Wars play themselves out.

Have you experienced this frustration firsthand? If so, it would be interesting to hear about your experience.

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