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.