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Does the OS (Mobile or Otherwise) Still Matter?

I was watching one of the business TV channels recently, and a guest expressed the opinion that RIM’s (BlackBerry) current problems stem largely from the lack of a contemporary and competitive operating system. OK, my views on RIM are on record – they’re going to survive and can even prosper in the future, sustained by their large installed base and my confidence that senior management really can turn the current situation around. But a new OS as key? Really? Does, or make that should, anyone really care about an operating system in 2011?

OK, operating systems have long been used as a competitive differentiator, and RIM’s current BlackBerry OS is indeed looking a little long in the tooth. But it’s hardly unserviceable, and many like its simplicity. And I’m going to argue that what really matters today is (a) a fluid user experience with respect to applications, and (b) decent Web/cloud application and local app support. (a) is easily addressed; just make your OS look like an iPhone, as Android has done, and (b) means providing a decent browser, also pretty easy today – even the BlackBerry is much improved here lately. So, while operating systems, mobile or otherwise, have a lot to do (make the hardware reasonable for applications, provide a file system, manage tasks and memory, provide a GUI, and related items), one wonders how any given OS can really maintain differentiation over time.

Indeed, all of the mobile OS leaders provide basically the same functionality. Android is free, Apple is a religion, with iOS the path to enlightenment, BlackBerry OS is functional but boring (and due to be replaced by QNX regardless), and Windows Phone is, well, OK, I’m not sure, but it’s not cheap and I’d regardless be interested in hearing about any features that represent sustainable competitive advantage. Still, with Nokia betting the farm on it, it’s a similarly safe bet that MS will survive here. WebOS, also trailing in popularity at present, has HP behind it and is pursuing a strategy of webOS on Everything, which is interesting, especially from a big integrator like HP. But, still, all of these look pretty similar and are ultimately differentiated by how well they enable the cloud (Apple’s iCloud is strategic, big time) and local apps (Apple wins again, but perhaps only for the moment, as Android isn’t far behind here). But, really, and depending upon your specific requirements, wouldn’t you be happy with any of these? Aren’t the specifics of a given handset’s hardware and a carrier’s data plan much more important in making the big decision?

What’s really making the difference in OSes, then, is marketing – whoever does the best job at speaking to the customer wins. And, of course, no one does that better than Apple. But, again, it’s not all that hard to imitate the iPhone, which essentially everyone else has done or is busy doing, so for Apple to maintain its lead is going to require a good deal of marketing, a zillion apps in the store or not. And at least incremental innovation – we’re already getting set for iOS 5 and iCloud, after all. But as these capabilities can and will be imitated and as the leading vendors develop their own cool tools, the OS itself regardless isn’t quite as important as it used to be. Eventually, everyone left standing will have, by definition and imitation (and, OK, perhaps a little innovation), everything they need here.

So I’m going to argue that the OS, while it is everything it used to be and more, is rapidly losing value as a competitive differentiator. Rather, a good OS, primarily in the form of a snappy user interface and app/application support, is no more than jacks-or-better today.

So what should buyers focus on? It’s simple: start with the information, not device. It’s really a question of what data a mobile user needs, when, where, and how often. If the app that deals with the data required only runs on an iPhone, then that’s your answer. I personally favor Web/cloud-based services, so the browser is my key filter. And you have a good deal of these to choose from, even on the iPhone. And if you’re pursuing a user-liable/BYOD strategy, well, back to my original question: who really cares about operating systems anymore? Fewer, I think, with each passing day.


  1. Posted July 20, 2011 at 08:55 | Permalink

    Craig – I think you raise an excellent question, but I fear some of your arguments are slightly off the mark. First, we have already seen that Android is not free and will only get more expensive thanks to all the lawyers out there. When you talk about iCloud, I agree that it is strategic, but the way it appears to have been implemented (thus far) scares the heck out of me from an enterprise security perspective. You can see my comments here:


    Now that said – with all things going to the Cloud, the OS does NOT matter in my opinion….however, due to this cooky thing called personal preference, we’re still going to see four or more mobile operating systems out there for the foreseeable future.

    Heck, I predict that once the Cloud becomes yet another fad and that we start moving back to Client/Server (under a new name of course), the OS may matter once again!

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    • Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:09 | Permalink

      You are certainly right about security. Good discussions of the security of iCloud, for example, are few and far between. I’m in the process of moving much of Farpoint Group’s IT infrastructure into the cloud, but this could take some time due to the need for the rigorous evaluation of security concerns before anything mission-critical is undertaken. Still, I’m reasonably convinced that public-cloud services can be made secure and that any service provider that screws up here will suffer (with the possible exception of Apple, since it appears that vast numbers of people will buy whatever those guys sell no matter what. I’m a Mac person myself, although I still refuse to buy and iPhone. And I have no iPod either, just for the record).

      And you are correct that cloud-based anything really is the evolution of client/server. But the key point here is that we will rely on services in the cloud for many of our applications while mobile, even those that have been lumped under the general heading of “personal productivity” and thus traditionally implemented with local apps. I can’t think of many apps that won’t be primarily provisioned in the cloud, including music, video, spreadsheets, calendars, phonebooks, and, of course, key corporate apps. Salesforce.com is the classic example here – I know many businesses that run their entire operations on this service, although even these guys haven’t satisfied all of my personal concerns regarding security.

      Still, under almost any scenario, the local OS loses value over time assuming the jacks-or-better capabilities are there in any given case, although I will agree with you that the Big 4 all survive over the near term (2-3 years, anyway). And, OK, sure, Android isn’t free, but it’s really, really cheap!

      Thank you for the note!


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  2. Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:16 | Permalink

    We went through the same thing with carriers back in the day, where consumers purchased their mobile devices based on the carrier that provided the best coverage. The phone itself was almost secondary and the real value was in the carrier you were with. Then, the value shifted to hardware and that’s where RIM did an excellent job in branding BlackBerry as a must-have device (which you could buy from pretty much any carrier you wanted). As we move up the chain, we see the value shift to software while hardware gets commoditized and becomes increasingly irrelevant. To your point Craig, I think we’re at a time now where the OS (mobile or otherwise) is becoming less of a competitive differentiator and we’re starting to see the value shift again from software into cloud services and applications. Apple has done an exceptional job in recognizing this trend and their recent results are proof that they understand where the value lies and, perhaps more importantly, where its moving.

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    • Posted July 21, 2011 at 09:00 | Permalink

      Colin – So if I understand you correctly, the OS doesn’t matter anymore….nor does the network. How will the apps matter if we have them all on the various (cloud) platforms? Look at Netflix for example. You can already get that on iOS and Windows Phone and I assume we’ll soon see it for BlackBerry and webOS. Where is the differentiation there then?

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  3. Posted July 25, 2011 at 11:38 | Permalink

    Security is a key factor, especially for overwhelmed IT departments trying to figure out which devices (OS’s) to approve in a post-Blackberry world.

    But OS’s do matter. Fundamentally. Apple is continuing their PC-era approach of tightly integrating (and controlling) both hardware and OS. Google and Microsoft are enabling 3rd party hardware with their OS’s. OS’s win and die based on the number of Apps available for their respective OS. Availability of Apps does taint/affect user choice, including for folks in IT (for deploying LOB Apps, for example). User choice translates into market share which translates into attracting more App developers and Apps.

    Circular logic? Yup, but not quite. OS wars are momentum plays. The OS is gaining or accelerating critical mass and enjoying this REINFORCING FUNCTION, or it is dying. My views on RIM are far more dire:
    1) You can’t win in the OS Wars if you haven’t base-lined on an OS, making it easier for developers to focus their efforts (and extra points if it’s easy to develop Apps on the OS, something that achieves near universal criticism for RIM). They better hurry up with QNX.
    2) RIM’s “enterprise fortress” is breached. IT is selecting OS’s for new criteria – the very ones that frustrate RIM in the broader market.
    3) Cloud is an important variable, but they will be largely accessed by Apps that reside on Mobile OS’s. In other words, Cloud will be a tool, but it won’t shift OS selection by itself (as all use it fairly well).

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    • Posted July 26, 2011 at 09:03 | Permalink

      Security should be independent of the OS. And if an OS isn’t secure, by definition it’s not competitive (unless it comes from Microsoft, although that’s changing, and quickly).

      OSes do not win and die based on the number of apps available. At best that’s a temporary phenomenon, since most users will never see or need the vast, vast majority of apps, and all the important apps or their equivalents will run on all successful OSes.

      RIM’s real problem is its clunky hardware, not its clunky OS. They can succeed with new products which will regardless get a new OS (QNX, as you note). As we move to more of a consumer-driven mobile world, RIM just needs products that appeal to consumers. Does Apple have a monopoly here? As we’ve seen with Android, nope. And are we ready to close the mobility patent office regardless? I don’t think so!

      If the cloud is successful, and it will be, any given OS is further marginalized – I can’t imagine what unique, sustainable local functionality augmenting the cloud and providing a competitive advantage might be.

      Case closed.

      Thx. Craig.

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      • Posted July 26, 2011 at 10:03 | Permalink

        Clunky hardware? Most people would say they have the best keyboard in the business….and yes, some people still prefer a keyboard. Most people are leaving BlackBerry (IMO) not because of the hardware, but because of the OS and the lack of apps (which ties back to the OS given the relative difficulty in developing apps).

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    • Posted July 26, 2011 at 17:00 | Permalink

      I have to strongly agree with Nicholas here. I say it slightly differently though; technology is embraced when it efficiently or exclusively provides a capability. People like an OS because of what it can do for them, and how well. Perhaps it’s because there are more, well written apps, or perhaps it’s because the OS itself is more “open”. Or perhaps the user subjectively feels “it just works better”.

      But “embracing” isn’t always the objective of an IT organization. More often the case, an IT organization needs to provide a very specific function in a very specific way. That’s where standardization comes in to play.

      I think RIM was initially successful in the enterprise because they provided a very specific, controlled user experience with a great deal of security around it. Companies found it easy to standardize on that platform. If you think about it, Apple has had an even more standardized platform. But now they’re starting to add security controls and restrictions that can be centrally managed.

      So yes, the OS matters. While each OS is becoming more and more powerful, as well as functionally interchangeable, an IT organization still must standardize to provide a specific and secure experience for each specific business function. As an analogy, look at the desktop OS. While it’s certainly possible to centrally manage a large number of Windows and Mac PCs simultaneously, it’s not very cost effective. The same is and will be true for the Mobile OS.

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  4. Posted July 26, 2011 at 12:54 | Permalink

    Craig, I don’t think the case is closed. It’s exceedingly difficult to explain the tectonic shifts in mobility without acknowledging the OS. The strongest correlation in market share shifts (winners and losers)? Map market share gain/loss to Apps. Easy picture. But let’s break this apart a little..
    1) History. We’ve seen this before. The PC computing paradigm was largely defined by OS’s. Virtually any historical account of PC’s will explain the woes of Apple and many others by their inability to source Applications (over time). Microsoft OS – security nightmares notwithstanding – won on that score with its WinTel model (Windows + Intel-based PC’s). Why or how is this “computing cycle” different from the previous?
    2) Good OS’s attract innovation. You may correctly cite a ton of trash, but your trash might be otherwise to someone else. Think “Long Tail”. Download and usage rates suggest that people like their Apps. Tastes/needs may differ. You may indeed have Top-X which constitute a bulk of the market, but the long-tail adds up quite nicely. Even if “trash”, the platform invites a large body of developers (people, entrepreneurs, tinkerers) to experiment and try new things. Low and behold, out of the vast experimentation come great new and unexpected home runs. That’s the same substrate for innovation that helped make the Internet what it is. In the worst case, look at the sheer ridiculous number of available Apps as an indicator of how an OS’s attractiveness to developers and their resulting innovation.
    3) I wouldn’t dare characterize RIM’s hardware (as clunky or otherwise), but I can say that it has failed in OS. 6/7 are very unfriendly to developers. QNX adds to the self-imposed “fragmentation”, where developers aren’t sure where to invest (and in time). Apple and Google have built a great new user experience on their respective native OS’s, but they have done as well to offer developers an easy-to-use set of tools that create capabilities (Apps) that are indeed compelling to end users. I’m a little shocked you don’t deem this relevant. RIM’s thesis on “performance and battery life” failed, as users have voted heavily for an alternative – “Give me Apps that drain my phone 2x per day!”
    - “Cloud”. I’m not sure that neutralizes OS’s and Apps as absolutely as you claim. The “market” (as defined by user downloads and usage) suggests that HTML5 has a massive hill to climb versus Apps. I personally like Cloud+HTML5, but that like doesn’t make a trend. Cloud vs. client server vs. dumb-terminal (VT100). These approaches ebb and flow, and I’m really not sure Cloud itself neutralizes the value of well developed App frameworks. In fact, Apple has a reasonable thesis that it’s about Cloud+Apps.

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    • Posted July 26, 2011 at 15:21 | Permalink

      Wow – awesome commentary Nick! I tend to agree with you that Native apps will continue to be the main delivery mode for the foreseeable future….but that the deta itself will live more and more in “The Cloud.”

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      • Posted July 26, 2011 at 17:47 | Permalink

        Data in the Cloud? Absolutely – more and more. Accessed by Apps or HMTL5/web? Yes! Will one win over the other? Probably not. Each toolset has its distinct uses and value. Non-HTML5 Apps are by their nature tied to the underlying OS and the tools it offers. Apple and Google have been offering great tools, and each WWDC or Google I/O seems to be “kids in the candy store” for developers. Keep them developers fed and innovation (capabilities worth embracing) will keep a comin’.

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  5. Posted July 26, 2011 at 17:18 | Permalink

    Craig, do you think your perspective on the OS will change when mobile virtualization becomes viable or commonplace? What if, at that time, only one OS vendor supports virtualization for a two or three year period?

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    • Posted August 5, 2011 at 12:31 | Permalink

      @nickdiaz I’m starting to wonder if the term mobile virtualization is being (incorrectly) used as a synonym for partitioning. Shouldn’t virtualization suggest (as in the server space) that you’re potentially/probably running a different OS?

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      • Posted August 5, 2011 at 14:20 | Permalink

        A valid question, and I am indeed referring to a personal and corporate partition, but the term “mobile virtualization” is valid.

        Think of the analogy of the massive effort to virtualize datacenters. A single virtual host may host dozens or even hundreds of virtual machines that may or may not run the same operating system.

        Or a closer analogy would be where I’ve seen contract workers of large corporations working for other large corporations running virtualized versions of Windows side by side – one joined to their employer’s domain, the other joined to the client’s domain.

        I claim no expert knowledge on the subject, but I’m excited about it. From what I’ve seen of mobile virtualization, still in its infancy at Ok Labs (http://bit.ly/20asXQ) and VMWare (http://bit.ly/cmOYTw), the idea is the partitioning you speak of, but indeed with independent operating systems that may or may not be the same.

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    • Posted September 22, 2011 at 08:08 | Permalink

      As with Philippe, I think the answer here depends upon what the definition of “mobile virtualization” is. For example, mine is a complete virtualization of the device. I am assuming that the future holds essentially continuous wireless connectivity, over both WLAN and WWAN, and perhaps WPAN in some cases, so there’s a reduced need for local processing and storage. The mobile device gets simpler, cheaper, and more reliable. In fact, my vision is based on two-factor authentication – just give me a smart card unique to me and any device that works with this smart card, which I actually envision as somethign along the lines of a wireless DoD Common Access Card. Authenticate, and there’s my “desktop” All processing and data live on the server, and no duplication or synchronization of data is required. Of course, there is that little issue of needing continuous connectivity, so that’s why this is a vision. But not the OS, again, really doesn’t matter is this case.

      Thanks for the note!


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  6. Posted July 26, 2011 at 17:39 | Permalink

    Nick, mobile virtualization is near and dear to my heart – and I think it is prudent, viable and soon to be commonplace (much sooner than 2-3 years). We should chat offline sometime on this front.

    Thanks for the better phrasing! You made my point in 1/20th the space ;-)

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  1. [...] initial feature set, and a new BlackBerry OS isn’t exactly setting the world on fire (I’ve written before about why OSes really don’t matter today). Gee, this all looks a lot like Nokia’s current mess, [...]

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