All-Out War: The Computing World’s Battle Lines Are Drawn

Over at Daringfireball this past weekend, John Gruber put words to what many people are thinking about after Google’s rush of Android announcements and not-subtle Apple-bashing at this week’s I/O conference: “all-out war.” I agree with Gruber that a good old-fashioned bitter rivalry could be a great thing for the computing world, and for smartphone/handheld fans in particular.In the meantime, Michael Arrington is having a brief flirtation with a $25 prepaid phone, but that fling is only enabled by the existence of the iPad for routine mobile computing needs and some unrequited lust for an as-yet-unreleased smartphone. The smartphone isn’t going away. It’s just going to be a part of an ever-richer market segment.

Right before our eyes, the computing world is being re-oriented, with some former heavyweights being relegated to support players, upstarts rising to prominence, and former champions taking a shot at a comeback. There’s a magical combination of technologies and trends that are enabling this transformation, and the various players’ strengths and skills at taking advantage of these factors will ultimately determine both their fortunes and the nature of the computing world that we’ll all have to live in for the next twenty years. Whether you’re a take-sides partisan or a curious onlooker, I think that 2009-2011 will prove to be a critical turning point in technological history.

In Thom’s thought-provoking essay from one week ago, he delivered a heartfelt elegy for the platform wars that haven’t so much ended but rather burned themselves out, while recognizing that cloud and mobile computing seem to be where the real action is these days. I agree with him, and don’t necessarily lament the loss.

As Gruber points out, one of the major differences between Google’s devices and Apple’s is that Google’s are more at-home in a post-PC world, while Apple’s are — literally — tethered to an accessory personal computer, if only for the initial setup and major upgrades. The cornerstone of the Post-PC world is offloading much of what we used to do with client apps onto centrally-managed server apps, i.e. cloud computing. Advancements in the HTML spec, robust development frameworks for developers, and the ongoing plummeting of the cost of processors, bandwidth, and memory for servers have all made this revolution possible, and most people who work in the web apps space feel that we’re just at the forward edge of what’s possible.

The new crop of devices, from netbooks to smartphones to the new tablets would be much-degraded without cloud computing. It’s all about the strong collection of web-enabled apps that both ameliorate their modest performance and storage capabilities and extend their functionality via an always-on network. As this revolution continues, fewer people will be using these devices as an accessory to a traditional personal computer, and more will be using them as replacements.

But clearly, in the Google vs. Apple smartphone (and soon-to-be, certainly tablet) wars, the big loser almost certainly is going to be has already been Microsoft. Not only can I not imagine them being able to make up for their lost momentum enough to be more than a side player, there just aren’t many people who are really rooting for them to win. And there’s another problem for them: this computing revolution isn’t only about a bunch of nifty new mobile computing devices getting everybody’s attention.

There are various things happening simultaneously here, and the interaction between these phenomena is what’s causing the revolution: First is a vibrant and exciting new crop of devices, running the gamut of price and functionality: Desktop PCs, laptops, netbooks, smartbooks, tablets, smartphones. A by-product of the various hardware platforms is a variety of different operating systems, each with its own advantages, limitations, and application library. But instead of taking us back to the bad old days of vendor lock-in via software apps, native applications are waning in importance. Some platforms, such as Google Chrome, are trying to dispense with native apps altogether. The iPhone’s apps are typically lightweight affairs that are often just a series of UI hooks to a web-based app. Even regular desktop PCs are experiencing the shift. I probably use a quarter of the apps on my desktop machines that I used to, and even some of the ones I use are just gateways to “cloud” apps. Everything else has been replaced by web apps.

In theory, this should make the barrier to entry for a new platform pretty low. As long as you really embrace web-based apps, people should be able to do the things they want to do, and the lack of a large developer community won’t hurt you as much as it used to. In the irony to end all ironies, this may actually save Microsoft from becoming completely irrelevant in mobile computing. In practice however, apps still matter, and that’s one reason why this war seems to be organizing itself around Apple’s vibrant, orderly, and deeply unfair App Store model and Google’s evolving concept for an app store, which now appears to include both native android apps and a “store” for web apps. (Of course, Microsoft’s still massive library of win32 apps will still remain relevant in the desktop space, but their window for being able to leverage that advantage into mobile is largely closed.)

The vibrancy and simplicity of these new devices, coupled with the increasing viability of a completely cloud-based desktop computing environment is even causing people to question the PC paradigm altogether. I believe that over the next few years we’ll actually see a contraction of the personal computer installed base in countries with a fully-developed tech economy. Already, two and three-computer families are becoming one computer, two iPad households. They may be outliers now, but with the convenience and maintenance advantages of Post-PC devices, once the iPad is joined by scads of inexpensive lookalikes, we’ll see more and more older PCs being decommissioned and replaced with alternative devices.

I think it’s safe to speculate that many of these devices won’t be tablets. Lightweight non-Windows netbooks, and even full laptops and desktops will become more popular, particularly if Google’s Android and ChromeOS and (Now)HP’s WebOS make the advancements we assume they’ll make. Is an iPhoneOS-based MacBook (with a detachable keyboard) out of the question?

The upshot of all of this activity for the OSNews reader is a real invigoration of the OS landscape. Granted, for the most part we’re still talking about Windows, MacOS, and Linux and their associated variants, but it’s exciting nonetheless. The only way this is really going to happen, however, is through a knock-down, drag out war.

As ambitious as Apple has seemed to be as it’s made its assault on the smartphone space, it is not, by nature, an ambitious company, strategically. They have existed from the beginning by creating (mostly) excellent products that a portion of the tech community wants to buy, and has always maintained that it’s necessary to both keep their product line pretty constrained and their prices pretty high. But pleasing everyone and selling to the mass market has never been their thing. The iPhone enjoyed such a superiority to the field for its first couple of years, that if Google had not intervened, it’s quite likely that Apple would have rested on its laurels and differentiated new iPhones mostly around industrial design. Staying a step ahead of Microsoft would have been a background process.

But Google is going to force Apple to up its game considerably, and the fact that Android is free to license means that the entirety of the non-Apple hardware world is likely to get involved. This also means that Microsoft, Nokia, HP, Samsung, and whoever else wants to make a platform play is going to have to work that much harder. They’re not going to just have to contend with Apple and its natural boundaries. They’re going to have to try to make money in an environment where neither Apple nor any of the Android users is paying a licensing fee for their software. The only way they’ll be able to compete in that environment is by innovating: either making a platform that beats out the leaders in some way, or expanding a new product segment where Android and Apple aren’t doing a good job.

So will we end up with a boring old Apple/Google duopoly? I think it’s too early to call that yet. Most of the money to be made in the post-PC space is in the future, growing, parts of it, and I think the prize is just too glittering for Microsoft and the rest of the players to just give it up so early in the game. It’s going to be war, ladies and gentlemen, and the beneficiaries will be us.


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