The Smartphone wars and why the entire argument is moot

First off, let me get the disclaimers out of the way.  I have owned or used for work every major brand of Smartphone except for Windows Phone 7/8, including Palm, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. I have both owned and used multiple iPhone models and I have been, to one degree or another, actively involved in the Android development community for years and have used an Android smartphone personally since Donut (Android 1.6).

So when I say it doesn’t matter what brand or platform you are using, I mean it.  One of the most controversial topics on the internet is iOS vs Android vs BlackBerry vs Windows Phone.  This is a more frequently debated topic than left vs right wing politics or atheism vs theism.  Which is shocking, because of two things. One, its a product that you buy, so why care so much?? The second, is that they all serve the same general purpose in the same general way, without any exceptions.

First, some background.  Through the 80’s and 90’s there was a commercial debate over what platform being sold would power the worlds computers.  First there was Apple DOS and IBM DOS, the latter powered by Microsoft code.  Then came Mac System (Later Mac OS), and MS DOS, along with IBM’s OS/2.  Throughout this time there were various flavours of UNIX powering workstations and mainframe-like systems. The reason the question of who would provide the dominant operating system was so important is because most computing tasks were ‘workstation’ style tasks, meaning they were accomplished exclusively on a single computer by software running on that computer accessing files on storage directly connected to that computer.  For example, accounting was done on a spreadsheet in Lotus or Excel, saved to a hard or floppy disk.

Because of this disconnected workflow, it was extremely important to control the platform, the operating system, as that allowed you to not only sell the platform to OEMs and directly to consumers, but to extract value from the software developer in terms of certification and validation testing.

So fast forward to today, Windows clearly won the workstation platform war and Microsoft is still making money hand over fist licensing it out and selling Windows Logo Certification to everything from video cards to mice to computers to weird headbands that can read your mind. But hold on, there is a new breed of devices with new operating systems vying for dominance in the market place.  And with a new form factor (touchscreen devices), come pundits drawing battlelines like its 1993 again.  But the world has changed since 1993, and I’m going to show you why its not so simple a formula, and why Google is not guaranteed dominance simply by controlling Android.

Today, the modern workflow is not simply “load program, open file, work on file, save file, close program” like it was 20 years ago.  Today, software is expected to interact not only with the same software running on many other computers, but on complex data sets hosted in multiple locations from multiple devices and users concurrently.  The other side of the coin, is that even tasks that used to work in ‘workstation’ mode (as defined above) are now operating in the ‘client-server‘ model, where the computer in front of the user is simply used as a gateway to access information and operations on a computer (server) physically separated. In layman’s terms, we access our information ‘in the cloud’ or ‘on the internet’. Everything is offered as a service, in computer speak, which means that you connect up to it from a ‘client device’, either through a web browser or a ‘thick client’ (app).

Because of this fundamental shift in how we process information, it really doesn’t matter what device you use, as long as it accesses the services you need access to (and in a reliable, functional manner). This phenomena is most noticeable to Mac users, who even 5 years had to generally keep a Windows installation or computer handy for certain tasks whereas today there is almost no limitation to running Mac OS, as most everything you will do on your PC is available as a web service (or an equivalent). Today, the decision between Mac OS and Windows is an aesthetic (and economic) one, rather than one rooted in needing certain functionality not provided by the other.

So in today’s computing environment, all someone ‘needs’ is access to the online services we use every day, email/calendering, social media, media services (music/video), and games.  Because all of the functions have been lifted off the device and ‘moved to the cloud’ (god I hate that term), the only ‘need’ when picking your device is access to the platform, which is now the internet.  In the 90s, people largely chose their Operating System of choice because of their needs, as in they need access to Lotus Notes so they need a computer that Lotus Notes will run on.  Today, they just need to access stuff, and there a multitude of ways to do so from any device.  So they make their choices based on ‘wants’, which is fine, but its not a big deal.  They ‘want’ access to the Play store, or the App Store.  They want access to this game instead of that game.  But ultimately, every major service is mostly available to every operating system, which is great.  But it does make the question of who will own the platform moot, because the platform is the internet.  The game in town has thus shifted to who controls the services, and that is easy: Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. Almost without exception. Even 3rd party services will generally use one or more of those companies’ identity platform to handle user registrations.

This new world will never see the same result as the one from the 90s, because it doesnt need to.  We can have multiple OS’s running on an infinite number of devices accessing the same or similar services, and the world will work just fine like that.  If someone discovers an exciting new use for their iPhone, it will be available to Android users soon, don’t worry.  Stop arguing and be happy.  In the question of who wins between iOS and Android, the answer is both (or the Internet).  Because both operating systems act as excellent platforms for thick client software, talking to the same services, there is no need for one to die so that the other can flourish. So stop screaming online about how your piece of glass is better, because in the end, they aren’t really SmartPhones, they are SmartClients.  Phone service is just one of the many services they act as a client for, and they all do it pretty damn well.