Compare ecosystems, not Android vs iOS

Bryan Alexander, Senior Fellow for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and I had an exchange on Google+ regarding how to think about mobile OS dominance. Our brief chat got me thinking about the merits of such a debate in today’s world. Unlike the years of PC-centric Windows, Macintosh, Linux and Unix platform thinking, the reality is that mobile operating systems don’t matter all that much. Fixating on mobile operating system dominance has as much relevance as fixating on my growing number of gray hairs — matters for moment but not in the big picture. Today, the comparison shouldn’t be about a commoditized OS “moment” but rather examining “the big picture” around the choice of an ecosystem and the ripple effects that choice creates.

In the consumer electronics space, the concept of an entertainment ecosystem has been the goal for years and many technology companies almost made it a reality. Sony, for example, largely dominated consumer electronics a decade ago, but let internal politics undermine its potential. Home entertainment hardware didn’t really integrate all that easily with its consoles, mobile phones and computing devices were off in the weeds, portable music players were all over the place and clung to dying removable media, and the entertainment content division seemed to not want to play ball with any of what the company was creating. Then to add insult to injury, the massive PlayStation Network hacking incident of 2011 brought everything to a halt and crushed consumer confidence. The result is the mess that is Sony today — products that don’t really make sense and an ecosystem that is so confusing to use that most don’t even bother to pay attention anymore. Sony had the right DNA, but blew the execution because it couldn’t get itself up to the ecosystem level.

The Sony experience stands in stark contrast to tech’s current golden child, Apple. Over the last decade, Apple has created an ecosystem where hardware, software, and content move almost seamlessly across devices and services. The consumer isn’t stuck in the middle of corporate infighting, but instead is as the center of a unified experience. A person who adopts iOS isn’t adopting an operating system, they’re buying in to a coherent ecosystem that works across multiple operating environments and devices. Enthusiasts may not like Apple’s approach because of its “closed” nature, but consumers do. We are voting with dollars for ease of use, simplicity and convenience, and that translates into happy customers, margins for Apple, and rewarded developers.

When Android launched, Google somewhat promised all of what Apple had to offer in an “open” environment. Now years later, the Android ecosystem appears to be heading down a path not unlike Sony. Much of the focus has been on hardware and OS features, but not on the consumer. Without focused attention toward tending and managing the Android ecosystem, developers are now left to support an entangled jungle of OS releases and hardware combinations, the Android Marketplace is unfocused (now called “Play”), and reported margins for software and hardware developers and suppliers are low. The unkempt OS-centric ecosystem of Android now resembles a Terry Gilliam Brazil dystopia rather than Google’s vision of technological nirvana. Enthusiasts may like the Android ideal, but enthusiasts don’t buy and stick with products — consumers do.

In a break from the Android paradigm, Amazon has taken a different path. Like Apple, it too is attempting to transcend the OS and concentrate on creating a quality user experience that is built upon a coherent ecosystem of hardware, software and content. It uses Android as its base operating system, but Amazon is providing an alternative to the Google jungle in an effort to create a unique ecosystem for its customers. Amazon is leveraging its experience in digital distribution and ecommerce to build, like Apple, a “closed” environment where consumers can seamlessly access the materials they want and applications they need on the Kindle devices they carry. The result? Consumers are adopting uniquely-powered Android Kindles, Amazon is growing its channels through its own app store, and developers appear to be seeing greater ROI. Amazon has created an ecosystem that isn’t defined by the OS; it is an ecosystem defined by a consumer experience.

Today, consumers are not really looking for spec-sheet features — hardware and operating systems are largely the same. People are looking for the best experience that matches their personal tastes, desires, and lifestyles. We’ve elevated consumer technology awareness from personal computing to personal technology whereby hardware, software and the technology environment meshes and adapts to our individuality. In contrast, the perennial OS debate is one that’s rooted in 30 years of bounded personal computing. For decades, we’ve accepted the operating system as a presentation of a constrained existence. The personal computing paradigm equates the choice of an operating system to an acceptance of limitations rooted in isolation. Personal technology and its consumer manifestation, mobile, can’t exist in isolation — there is no way to consider a mobile OS without taking into account its context of use and the ecosystem in which it exists. To do so would be foolish.

So in short, we should stop arguing about OS dominance, update our thinking, and concentrate more on reality: consumers are choosing ecosystems and not operating systems. Let the the gray hairs of computing circa 1985 go and evaluate what is really important.

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