Mobile operating systems: It's not about VHS versus Betamax

In the 1970s two rival video tape formats battled out for the hearts and minds of consumers. Movies were distributed on either VHS or Betamax. Eventually,  VHS won. But today who uses video tapes? Who debates whether to use VHS or Betamax?

The UK’s Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) is about to embark on a study to look at the dominance of Apple and Google in the smartphone operating system market. It wants to assess whether these digital giants, who dominate the mobile device market, are potentially limiting consumer choice. From a consumer perspective, the situation is analogous to the 1970s, when film distributors chose which of the two rival formats to use to distribute their videos.

Mobile app developers also need to make a choice. Develop apps for the walled garden Apple App Store, which only works on Apple devices running iOS or develop Android apps for Google Play or  an alternative Android app store. Unlike the Apple device centric software ecosystem, Google has opened up Android to device manufacturers. While it does indeed offer its own Android-powered devices, Samsung is the market leader. For an Android app developer, there are numerous permutations of device and software configurations that need to be tested for app compatibility.

In its Statement of Scope document for the study, the CMA said that among the areas it will be looking at is the fact that, due to their dominant position in the mobile market, consumers are in practice faced with a binary choice between two mobile ecosystems.

Consumer choice

The CMA notes that mobile devices and the mobile operating systems associated with them, serve as the entry point for consumers into mobile ecosystems. The Statement of Scope document states: “The choices of which device and operating system to purchase are made together, as these products are generally sold in combination. Though it may not be a conscious decision for all, when purchasing a mobile device, a consumer also decides which mobile ecosystem they will operate in going forward.”

This leads to a situation where consumers may end up with restrictions on choice. For instance, if a developer does not bother to write software for Android, the app is then only available on the Apple App Store. A win for Apple, perhaps? But the developer loses a potential customer.

Returning to the videotape saga, surely we have learnt that maintaining consumer choice is paramount? This is particularly important given the ubiquity of mobile devices, and the role they play in people’s lives.

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