Upward Mobility: Should There Be Only One?

Admittedly, the idea of Ballmer, Cook and Schmidt all battling it out Highlander-style is appealing...

As long as most people can remember, the smartphone space has been a contested one. Before the iPhone became temporarily ubiquitous, RIM and Palm were fighting it out to own the market, and today you have a plethora of platforms to choose from, including Android, iOS, Windows, and Blackberry. And because many mobile OS vendors license their products to third-party manufacturers, some mobile operating systems have little market share wars of their own, such as HTC fighting it out with Samsung and Motorola for the Android customer base.

I’ve talked before, in the context of languages, about the damage that the paradox of choice can bring to societies. Having more product choices may not make us any happier, or even lead to better products, but only create the vague uncertainty that whichever product choice we make, it wasn’t the correct one.

For obvious reasons, a monopoly doesn’t usually work out that well either, at least in mature markets with stable standards. Very few will argue that Microsoft’s most innovative years occurred during the period that they sat “fat, dumb and happy” with 90%+ desktop market share. But I would argue that there comes a time when some choices should be left to die a dignified death, and that both Windows and Blackberry mobile products are at that point.

The issue isn’t whether the new Windows 8 and Blackberry 10 phones may have some new or interesting features. The question is if the benefit of these new features outweighs the cost to the developer community, which gets passed on to the users. As someone who spends his days supporting mobile customers at a large enterprise company, I can tell you that having to support multiple handset operating systems directly detracts from our ability to deliver new product features. Even if the work on certain mobile OS ports is farmed out to a third-party, it still costs money that could have been spent internally adding new features or enhancing existing ones. QA also finds their workload multiplied by three or four, as each new version has to be tested not only on each model the company supports, but across multiple mobile platforms.

The stockholders of Blackberry and Microsoft would obviously like their mobile products to succeed, and the CEOs would be fired in an instant if they just said “Meh, let’s not pollute the space with another redundant product.” But consumers should realize the cost of keeping four mobile platforms alive instead of two will directly impact the quality of the applications they get to use. A world where Blackberry and Windows mobile died a final death would be a world where there were more and better applications for the consumer.

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