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On The Duopoly Of Mobile

It is surprising how quickly the duopoly of iOS and Android, Apple and Google, became entrenched. At the 2007 iPhone launch event, Steve Jobs compared the touchscreen-centric iPhone UI with four other competitors: the Moto Q, BlackBerry, Palm Treo, and Nokia E62. The Moto Q ran on Windows Mobile, the last release of which was in 2010. BlackBerry had replatformed onto Android in 2015, joining the duopoly. Palm effectively stopped making anything (even at its new home in HP) in 2011, then popped up again in 2018 making Android devices. The holdout was Nokia, who partnered with Microsoft in 2011, sold to them in 2014, and (as Microsoft Mobile) closed in 2018.

Within little more than a decade, all competition had disappeared. Apple targeted 1% of the global mobile phone market at the 2007 launch. Today, they control 25% of the global market, with Android at 70%. The remaining 5%…well, who are they?

It depends on how you count. True alternatives include Tizen, Sailfish OS, Firefox OS/boot 2 gecko…they appear and disappear without leaving a mark. I worked at one of the multinational telcos back in 2012, and already (five years in to this journey) they were willing to throw their money at anyone who promised to be a third choice in this two-horse race, putting a massive marketing budget behind Windows Phone and even seconding members of my engineering team to Mozilla to work on Firefox OS. It did not stick. Then there are the budget feature phones sold in developing markets and to Dutch hipsters. They are a doubly-small contribution: low numbers, low value.

We are technologists, so we might count among the alternatives those that are based on the same technology as the others but that represent different markets. “Ubuntu for Android” is Ubuntu, but with the Android kernel and device drivers. It is so dead that Canonical have deleted the website. We can say the same for the Amazon Fire Phone, which (like the Kindle Fire tablet) is Android but with Amazon’s stuff instead of Google’s.

One that still exists is Replicant: a fully free build of the Android Open Source Project plus other components. Replicant is not Android in that it is not Google and does not have the Google Play Services, and Google do not make any money when you install Replicant. But does it truly compete? Does a five-year old device with a free download of a fork of Android 6 and a copy of the F-Droid store “count” as a part of the mobile phone market? What about a rooted iPhone with Cydia, does that compete with Apple? Or does it actually complement Apple, helping them to sell iPhones to people who are averse to walled-garden, console like experiences?

What about all of the things that are truly mobile computers, but that do not apparently count as mobile devices in the market share? What would it look like if we included portable Windows 11 computers that have a tablet mode alongside the other mobile platforms? Macs that can run iPad mobile applications, or Chromebooks that can run Android applications? Why are not these “mobile devices”?

OK, so the marketplace is messy, and things are counted in weird ways, but by and large there genuinely are two clear leaders: Android is far and away the majority choice for customers, iOS comes a respectable second, and everything else is so small that it is hard to know whether they are even being counted. What would it take to break that?

Evidently some people think it is possible, otherwise these wannabe third-place vendors that come and go would stop coming. But come they do: one of the latest is PureOS. What do they need to do? We can answer that by looking at the headline of the PureOS website: “A fully-convergent, user friendly, secure and freedom respecting OS for your daily usage.” Notice that the first thing they mention, before freedom-respecting, secure, or even user-friendly, is fully convergent.

Convergence was, if you go back and re-watch that video from the iPhone launch linked above, the big selling point of the iPhone. It is a media player, an internet browser, and a mobile phone all in one. And these days, it is a camera, a satellite navigation system, and a payment card too. So it is not enough to make a good phone, you have to make a good all-of-those-things.

But actually in 2022 it is much more than that. Convergence has flipped inside out: it does not just mean “I only need one box of electronics in my pocket”, it means “my thing works with all of my other things”. Google, Apple, even Microsoft: none of these are in the gadget-selling business or even the software-for-gadget-selling business any more; they are all in the “making your electronic stuff work wherever you are and whatever you are up to” business. So your new competitor needs to not only replace my phone, but that phone needs to work well with my smart watch, my smart TV, my laptop. And there is a problem, because all of those things are within the current ecosystems, so your new thing becomes an accessory, not a replacement.

That is why all of the supposed new platforms that will disrupt this space are not actually disrupting this space. Let us say for a second I believed that dApps—so called “Web 3.0” applications based on blockchain technology—were clearly going to be the future of the internet. Does that mean that I believe that any one or more of the companies operating in that market will eclipse Apple or Google as the go-to supplier for electronic gizmos? No. Because to take over the planet, they have to address the current planet: and the current planet is on Android and iOS. They just drive new applications of the existing, entrenched platforms. Same goes for VR goggles: Meta is not going to supplant Apple or Google by being the goofy headgear vendor of choice, even if they do manage to corner the goofy headgear market.

The people who understand this dynamic and want to try to beat it anyway are doing the trick Indiana Jones did with the idol and the bag of sand: they are giving you a new way to use your existing thing that you get familiar with until one day, “boom”, you can do away with the existing thing and just go straight to them. See, for example, FriendOS.

There is in fact a pretty sweet solution to overturning this duopoly, though its advance seems to have stagnated. Plenty of the applications you actually use on your mobile phone are in fact web apps, whether you launch your browser to interact with them, install them as a Progressive Web App, or even download a native bundle of Kotlin or Swift from an App Store. They are just little blobs of code that do some authentication to a web service, then send and receive JSON documents to render on the screen. This puts iOS and Android in danger of being the “dumb pipes” that the telcos have discovered they are supplying: all you get when you unwrap your iGalaxy Zperia S220 is a SIM card holder with a big button marked “browser” and somewhere to enter your wi-fi password.

Then the next replacement is simply the vendor who supplies the “pocket browser plus”—any old web app works, any old React Native or Ionic app works, and you can do whatever it is that is unique to this platform and highly desirable. Google and Apple have to catch up—they have bottomless pockets so they will do so, but they will have to license the new IP to be allowed to do so, meaning the new vendor gets rich anyway. Wherever that new thing comes from, I expect it will be what Clayton Christensen called a disruptive innovation in his Innovator’s Dilemma: nobody will see it as world-changing, including the vendors, until it has already changed the world.

Cover photo by BP Miller on Unsplash.

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