What if the war is over?

According to analyst figures, Android is hovering at around 80% of mobile device shipments worldwide. iOS accounts for most of the remainder, with about 15%, leaving roughly 5% for everyone else to fight over. And fighting they still are, but at some point everyone else has to ask themselves: is there any justification for continuing? It’s looking more and more like future technologists will recall this decade and say of some particular date, “That’s the point when the mobile platform war was won by Android.” Like how we can now look back on, say, World War II, and make pronouncements like, “The Allies had essentially won by the time of the Normandy invasion in June 1944. Germany just hadn’t admitted it yet.”

My hypothesis is that, right now, early 2014, that point in mobile has already passed. We’re just too close to the battle lines to see it.

This hypothesis may be wrong, of course, but here are a couple of indications that it may be right: The most successful tablet platform after Google and Apple is Amazon – and it’s Android. The most interesting, talked about, up-and-coming mobile platform of today (in my opinion) is Cyanogen Inc. – and it’s Android. In other words, the platforms lining up after Android and iOS… are Android. That’s not proof, sure, but for the rest of this article I’m going to explore some of the consequences that I would foresee if the hypothesis were true.

If my hypothesis is true, it means that we’re moving into a place – or rather, realizing that we’re already in a place – where it can be safely assumed that any mainstream mobile device (not made by Apple) is running Android. Because, what else would it be running? Think of the PC market any time after about 1992: there was never any question that a given Dell, Gateway, or Compaq would be running Windows. Sure, Apple was doing their own thing, and there were any number of niche platforms, but for the real mainstream, there was only one. Forget competing ecosystems, that’s a fantasy.

I’m certainly not the first to draw a parallel between the mobile platforms of today and the PC platforms of decades past, with Google filling the role held by Microsoft in those days, and Apple as, well, Apple. But that’s the dynamic that always gets the attention, Apple-as-underdog vs. The Establishment. Apple’s got experience in that role, and is apparently happy with it, that’s what they do. We don’t need to worry about Apple. But what about everyone else?

Everyone else, in this case, falls generally into two camps. First, there will always be niche platforms nibbling at the periphery, filling the needs of some particular corner of the market. Like how the various Linux distros do on PCs – and sure enough, open-source analogs to those are appearing in mobile, like Ubuntu and Firefox. It’s always possible that one of these may break out into the mainstream, but for now, I think we can safely call them niche platforms. And by definition, they don’t affect the big picture very much.

The second camp contains the dinosaurs, the platforms which were big players in the pre-iOS world and which didn’t evolve quickly enough to stay competitive. Nokia has already fallen, sold itself out, admitting that it had lost the battle. The others that are still holding on are BlackBerry and Microsoft, of course: both have lost the large market share they once had, both have reinvented their platforms as “modern” alternatives – and both have completely failed to get any significant traction. And both are still in denial about having lost the war, both still think that they can claw their way back to relevancy.

If my hypothesis is correct, it’s already too late for either of these contenders, and has been for some time.

The writing has been on the wall for BlackBerry for years now, and although they’re hemorrhaging money and employees (not to mention CEOs), they still talk like they can win this thing. Does anyone outside – or even inside – of Waterloo actually believe that any more? BlackBerry 10 is a fine OS, and its current hardware is more-or-less competitive, but that’s like saying “Germany could still win in 1945 because they built good tanks.” I’m not going out on a limb at all when I say that BlackBerry, as it was, is finished.

What can this particular dinosaur do to avoid complete extinction? The first step is to admit defeat, and ring down the curtain on the BlackBerry OS. Then bring the quality BlackBerry hardware over to Android – it’s the only option now, remember – and work to leverage whatever other strengths BlackBerry Ltd. has left. I’ll bet it still has good supply chain connections, and some lingering relationships with carriers. If necessary, it could build an emulation layer to run legacy BlackBerry apps on Android (they’ve already done the reverse), as a bridge for existing customers.

Beyond that, a good strategy would be to play the security card that BlackBerry was once renowned for. Deserved or not, Android has a reputation for being wild and insecure – BlackBerry could conceivably build a locked-down ‘droid that would offer execs (and others) a secured experience. Better yet, BlackBerry could buy that expertise: Geeksphone has recently announced its Blackphone project along those same lines. Even the name’s a good fit. I’ll bet BlackBerry has enough left in the bank to aqui-hire Geeksphone, kick-starting Waterloo’s Android conversion and even picking up some long-lost geek cred in the process.

The other dinosaur in the room is Microsoft… and it’s complicated. They’re too diversified to get dragged under by the failure of their mobile platform; they can keep it on life support indefinitely if they so choose. But on life support it most certainly is: in the last quarter of 2013, sales of Nokia’s Windows Phone handsets fell by 7% – in the quarter that includes the Christmas buying season. And Nokia is almost the only one making these phones any more; if it wasn’t for Microsoft buying Nokia’s hardware division, there’d hardly be any Windows Phones at all these days. You can be certain that this battle is lost if the oft-rumored Nokia Normandy, running Android, comes to pass – a sure sign that Microsoft has admitted their defeat. [Did you say Normandy? What was that about WWII earlier?]

But that’s not happened yet. Right now Microsoft is also in the search for a new CEO, and the direction that the new leader takes will tell the tale here. S/he might double down on Windows Phone, and make a last shot at relevancy with a big shakeup. Buying T-Mobile might just do it (think about that one for a minute).

But probably not. My thesis is that the war’s already over, right – and if so, what’s Microsoft’s place in the post-war world?

One option is to just get out of the phone business entirely. Sell off the remains of Nokia (who’d probably go on to build some great Android phones) and fall back to the businesses that Microsoft knows, and more-or-less dominates. Take their ball and go home.

If we’re truly moving into a post-PC era, though, Microsoft won’t want to sit that game out. So again, the first step is admitting defeat, and learning to live under the rule of the victors. Let the Nokia division build those great Android phones, and build its own place in the Android market – a place that’d probably be significantly larger than its Windows Phone market is now.

As for Microsoft proper, well… At its core, Microsoft is a software company, and you know something? Its software could actually run on someone else’s operating system. Here’s a plan: Release Office (and other apps) for Android. Retool its server products to work well with Android clients. Build Android integration into XBox. Better yet, do all of these things for iOS and MacOS too: Apple and Google could be its partners instead of its competition. There’s no intrinsic reason that Microsoft has to control the whole software stack, it’s just done that for so long that everyone (especially in Redmond) expects that’s their rightful place in the world.

Which brings us to the big opportunity here: if the war is over, the combatants can stop fighting and start cooperating. Can build great things together. Think of it as a mobile platform peace dividend.

Afterword: Through most of this article, I’ve been drawing parallels between the mobile market of today and the PCs of yesterday. But it hasn’t escaped my notice that the PC market is still around (if shrinking), and may be undergoing a real shakeup for the first time since Microsoft established their dominance. To wit: I wrote this piece on Chromebook… indicating that it’s never too late to introduce a new platform contender.


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