HP’s killing of its webOS devices last week was a sure sign that the mobile platform market has become a two-, possibly three-player game. It’s a three-player game if you include Windows Phone 7, but that’s probably putting the cart before the horse. From here on out, Android and iOS are looking like the only sure bets in town.
What the fall of webOS proves yet again is that even a well-designed software platform paired with quality hardware and emblazoned with a well-respected brand name cannot survive without a strong, engaged developer community (re: BlackBerry PlayBook). Android is fragmented enough already; add to that yet another platform altogether and you’re looking at 100 obscure apps at launch and some very disappointed consumers.
Tablets are a microcosm of the challenges that new mobile platforms without app catalogs are up against. I didn’t get a chance to play with the TouchPad – I also missed out on the fire sale – but I can only guess the experience would have been an anti-climactic one given a lack of apps. The same is true of the PlayBook, a situation of which RIM is obviously aware, as the company has been promising the virtual Android app player since launch.
The BlackBerry PlayBook is a beautifully crafted device with a great UI; it’s also a dead end when it comes to use cases. There just aren’t enough developers willing to commit to a niche device/platform, and why should they? Look across the road at Android and iOS and your market (not necessarily your visibility) increases exponentially.
Even the Android tablets have had a tough go of it. Google has struggled to optimize Android for tablets, and as a result, developers have been treated with an environment even more fragmented than the one surrounding Android smartphones. The Motorola Xoom and Samsung Tab – each exceptional tablets in their own right – have barely put a dent in the iPad’s 90+ percent market share.
The concession HP made last week was a long time in coming. Considering the source – a high-profile company that knows the business and assessed the situation with a magnifying glass – this was the canary event for other struggling platforms that hope to make it without an established library of applications.
So how did we get to this point? In the beginning, users simply wanted apps that completed certain tasks. For instance, they might have wanted an app that provided sports scores and maybe an app that simulated flatulence. These tasks could be completed with generic apps available in some form or another on any platform. You don’t necessarily need ESPN to tell you who won the big game yesterday or iFart to do… well, you get the point. Today, however, entire businesses have been created around single apps. A friend of mine was hemming and hawing about whether to buy a $50 TouchPad (Staples was offering a $50 instant rebate off the liquidation price) because he wasn’t sure the device had an app that would support streaming Netflix.
To put it bluntly, users are now buying devices based solely on the availability of certain high-profile apps, and the developers of those apps just aren’t willing to commit the resources to build said apps for questionable platforms like Symbian, webOS and BlackBerry. Add to that a serious lag in time to market for app developers targeting new platforms, and one wonders whether QNX is dead before it arrives.
Advances in browser technologies like HTML5 could prove me wrong. If a mobile platform could somehow integrate HTML5 apps with the same seamlessness seen on the native side, there’s an outside chance that a cloud- or web-based platform could succeed. However, I’m not holding my breath. For now, the mobile platform market is coming up Apples and Android.