Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My OS is Legion: for They are Many

Jason Lackey

Providing support on mobile devices is certainly hard enough. Connections cannot be seen, smelt or touched, there are many platforms and on each of the many platforms usually many different devices, most of which have different form factors, screen sizes, keyboard and button layout and design.
Subscribers demand the latest and greatest and efforts to deliver on these demands have contributed to a longstanding problem in the industry - platform proliferation.
For those of you old enough to remember the Bad Old Days of computing, there used to be many platforms for desktops. Commodore had a couple, Tandy/Radio Shack had a few flavors of Trash-80, Apple had the infamous II+, Atari had the 400 and 800 with player missile graphics, color registers and sprites, then there were things like the Exidy Sorcerer and other CP/M machines not to mention all the weird and wonderful MSX machines from Japan. Those were wonderful days where there was real variety and differentiation in the world of the small computer, but there were huge drawbacks to this in terms of compatibililty - nothing was compatible with anything else and both hardware makers and software makers found it difficult to enjoy any sort of economy of scale. Later as the industry matured and the PC (and to a lesser extent the Mac) became the default standard(s), at least prior to the later rise of Linux. To some this was a withering of opportunity and a shrinking of choice, to others it was instead an opportunity - an opportunity for more developers and engineers to reach a critical mass with their products, an opportunity for everyone to do more with less and an opportunity for skills to survive upgrades to newer, faster hardware.
The mobile world is in a similar position today. On the smartphone front we have the iPhone, Symbian (S60 and for a little while more UIQ), Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Android and LiMo. This is not even starting to talke about the various RTOS featurephone platforms. While the overall mobile market and opportunity is huge, that opportunity is diluted across too many platforms, resulting in too much duplicated effort and not enough economy of scale. In the end the consumer, along with the CSRs trying to support those consumers, are the losers.
Enter Crazy Eddie
Crazy Eddie, apart from being the East Coast electronics chain that crashed and burned, was a mythical character from the Niven/Pournelle scifi epic The Mote in God's Eye. A certain alien civilization was locked into an unending cycle of explosive growth and total destruction, with no way out. There was always at least one Crazy Eddie who would always try to do the right thing at the wrong time. One example was in a city where the waste output had grown to take 100% of all possible removal capacity, in a civilization that on a good day when everything was perfect that was choking on its trash, Crazy Eddie would lead the garbage men on strike for better conditions.
In a way, both Android and the up and coming Palm Pre's WebOS remind me of Crazy Eddie - right thing at the wrong time. God knows we could all use a strong competitor to the iPhone and it seems safe to say that both Symbian and Windows Mobile, in their current forms, are having trouble delivering on that front. Certainly there is room for far better smartphones and better UIs and it is clear that Android, which not quite an iPhone killer, is showing good promise in its 1.0 incarnation and Cupcake is looking like it may be rather tasty. WebOS is looking equally, if not more appealing, but it remains to be seen how it will do in the wild.
So what is Crazy Eddie about these promising new platforms? Well, what the industry really needs right now is fewer platforms, not more. With so many platforms, a lot of effort is spent reinventing the incompatible forms of the wheel and then scrambling to find the roads that they work on with less left over for developing applications and content and true differentiators. While we are not in danger of a Highlander scenario (There can be only one!) I think that it is safe to say that operators, subscribers and developers would all like to see fewer, better platforms.
Anyone for a garbage strike?

No comments:

Post a Comment