Is there really a difference between mobile platforms?


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I am often asked to weigh in on the mobility wars by friends who know of my tech background. It's easy to stumble into a lively discussion these days on the highly subjective merits of Apple, Android and Microsoft mobile phones and tablets, especially since Microsoft just spiced up the game by introducing a new wave of devices.

I have been drawn into the “which platform is best” fray at wedding receptions, standing in grocery lines, business meetings and in airports. Opinions fly around like random lightning bolts in a summer storm and technologist views seem to carry extra weight.

But if you really want to assess who will prevail in the mobile-device wars, maybe a techie is not the best voice to turn to. There have been a multitude of articles on the technical aspects of the various platforms over the last several months as Microsoft re-entered the market. You can find technical minutia on how much devices weigh, the speed of their processors and even characteristics of how the displays caress your eyeballs. 

This ability to look under the hood doesn’t really, however, predict device adoption in 2013 and beyond. All of the mobile devices on the market from Apple, Microsoft, and the Android variants get the job done and handle email, texting, images, Facebooking, browsing and platform-targeted applications with ease. Each is a pleasure to use, offering an engaging interaction experience that did not exist a half decade ago and was nearly unimaginable a decade ago. 

So which company will win under this theory of relative equivalence? The industry numbers give a bit of a picture but even those are debatable. One set of the latest market figures on the web indicates that Apple and Android mobile phone platforms collectively make up 85 percent of the overall smartphone market, leaving a small slice of 15 percent for the others. At the same time, another set of statistics from another vendor selling a smartphone software tool claimed that Microsoft took up 20 percent of the space.  

I thought back to my friends who had passionately advocated their various mobile platforms and realized an interesting yet very unscientific factor. My friends who had gushed about the joys of Apple or Android spanned a range of professions from teachers to hair stylists to nurses to government workers to politicians to entrepreneurs. By contrast, all of my friends who had been excited about the Microsoft mobile platform were software developers who created Microsoft technology.  

I pondered this demographic insight and recognized perhaps this is just because Microsoft’s product offering is new. I decided to ask the question of a non-biased party with no mobile phone. I described the platform wars to my 12-year-old daughter. She was well aware of the Apple device as well as Android. But she was quite surprised when I told her Microsoft now had a device as well. “What does it do?” she wondered.

I described how it could more or less do all the Apple mobile phone could do but with a new, unique interface that looked and behaved differently. She looked at me with confusion and shared an insight that trumped all the articles, surveys and technical minutia. “But Apple already had that figured out!” Her spontaneous statement really said a lot about the state of mobility today.

We no longer live in an era where each technology product produces stunning advances. We live in an era where a lot of what mobility needs to do is working pretty well.   So the platforms that are out there today compete on “cool” factor, awareness, word of mouth and vibe as well as technology merits. A new platform can’t just be another good technology platform to be a leader. It must leapfrog over the other platforms with stunning new technology features to rise to the top. Or it needs to be so incredibly cool –– with the pop culture momentum of a hot new energy drink, Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga on the rise –– that everyone perceives it as a breakthrough must-have device. 

Anything short of that and it is just another product entering a market that has already been “figured out”. So the verdict in the mobile platform wars: there are a lot of incredible choices out there today. Microsoft just added more. Apple and Android got there first and are cemented in public consciousness unless someone changes the game. Microsoft wields mighty marketing budgets that will narrow the gap, and their uphill fight will continue to gain them share. But Microsoft technologists are easily gained. It is another matter to gain the heart and mind of a teacher, entrepreneur, hairstylist or savvy 12 year old.

The rewards are high to the next company that truly finds leapfrog advantage. You will see a game changer stir up the mix far more effectively over the next couple years. In the meantime, expect the mobile wars to rage on –– in a slugfest of marketing and public-consciousness battles. 

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