Mobile OS standardisation

The long hot summer of 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Mungo Jerry sang about being in the summertime and the two Steve’s revamped their first Apple computer.

Apple brought out its amazing home computer in June 1977. But if we look back on the history of computing over the last 35 years, standardisation has prevailed. It was the Apple II (running VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet application) that convinced IBM that home computing would impact business. IBM embarked on Project Chess, which delivered Big Blue’s interpretation of this era of computing. It was ingenious of Don Estridge, the father of the PC, to use standard components (not IBM developed), and run the machine using a common software platform – MS-DOS. This was arguably the biggest breakthrough in the design of the PC. It enabled Compaq in 1983 to develop the first IBM PC clone.

So even though the Apple Mac in 1984 ran superior software, the PC was a standard and its market share exploded.

Let’s wind the clock forward. Apple with the iPhone and iOS has again produced a compelling, proprietary product family. It certainly looks like Apple can do no wrong. But, there isn’t such a thing as an Apple clone. Apple fiercely protects the look and feel of its devices, which is why it is battling with Samsung over the Galaxy S3 smartphone.

Google, on the other hand, is taking the PC’s route to world domination. Arguably, Android still has a bit of a way to go to become a slick OS and software ecosystem, but like Windows, it will eventually get there, and will run on the widest choice of devices.

Now how about Microsoft? In all the years I have looked at MS, it has never been a company that is first to market. But Microsoft slowly chips away at the competition. It waits to develop a rival product, like the xBox 360, and then puts a huge effort into establishing the platform. Internet Explorer was not the first web browser, but it has outlasted Netscape.

The PC market is in transition. Netbooks showed us that people were happy with basic network access devices. In fact, I have one that still runs Ubuntu extremely well. Tablets are even simpler. With Windows 8 RT, Microsoft is hoping to leapfrog iOS, by offering people who would buy an iPad, a similar device capable of running the same software they already use at work. If it succeeds Windows 8 RT will be good for corporate IT, because IT departments can buy, test and deploy software from companies they are familiar with, on Windows RT tablets. It should improve LAN security and data protection as the Windows RT tablet will benefit from all the PC software that exists in this space.

Hybrid devices were on show at Computex in Tapei, giving a glimpse of how the industry sees a merger between tablet-like devices and laptops.

Home users may even see the benefit of having one device that runs the same software anywhere. Meanwhile, Ubuntu has developed a version of its desktop OS that runs on Android smartphones. So it is only a matter of time before Apple eventually puts MacOS on the iPad.

In terms of standardisation, I think Google is quickly establishing the Android platform, Microsoft is coming from the opposite direction, bringing PC-like functionality to tablet and hybrid devices. That leaves Apple, and as the past has shown us, Apple has always been proprietary. Apple is launching iOS 6 today and next month is the 5th anniversary of the iPhone. It is a device that has dominated the Western world. It is still a massively expensive device, compared to the cheapest Android smartphones. Until Apple makes its hardware available to other manufacturers, it will be a world of iPhones, iPads and the rest of us.