Platform Wars

By Dan Noal

Dan_noal In recent weeks, we’ve seen two seismic shifts in the mobile and tablet markets. First, Google announced its intent to acquire Motorola Mobility and a few days later, HP announced that it would discontinue producing webOS-based phones and the TouchPad. 

Google’s move to buy a hardware manufacturer has long been speculated in the media.  Motorola Mobility had previously been reported as a possible target, so Google’s move isn’t entirely surprising. However, after nearly 3 years since the public launch of Android, the question is why now?  Consider the comments of Android industry partners (e.g. Samsung, HTC, Verizon) mentioning the need to protect the Android ecosystem from IP lawsuits that threaten Android’s growth.  Now add the fact that Motorola Mobility has grown a significant patent portfolio in the mobile space over the past decade. 

Still, it is interesting to wonder about the long-term vision.  If Apple is the main competitor with the bulls-eye on its back, why wouldn’t Google focus all its efforts on building the finest devices that best leverage Android?  Which strategy is better – build it yourself or let leaders emerge from the group?  Many companies that have strongly adopted Android (Motorola Mobility being a major one) have all built very compelling devices that compete with Apple.  However, there isn’t an Android device that has the runaway success like Apple’s iPhone.  A key question now, and one that will take time to answer, is how hardware manufacturers will move forward on the Android platform now that Google owns one of their most capable competitors?  Additionally, how will this impact the ongoing platform battle against iOS?

HP’s move to stop making its webOS phones and TouchPad may not have been a surprise either.  At the time, some criticized HP’s move to buy Palm and predicted a less than rosy future.  To me, however, the timing of HP’s news was shocking.  HP seemed to be a company with a long-term vision and a commitment to own one of the key industry platforms.  It was investing in webOS and looked committed to realize best-in-class products based upon it.  These games are not won overnight, and with Apple’s leadership position and rapid rise of Android, it was clear that market share gains for webOS would take considerable time.  The iPad sensation was going to be difficult to dent, so initial low sales figures for the TouchPad were likely a sign that there was a long road ahead.  But good technical reviews for the webOS platform at least convinced me (and I wasn’t alone) that HP was in it for the long road.  Wrong. 

What’s the connection? Both clearly show that platform wars are expensive.  So expensive, in fact, that Google invested $12.5 billion to protect their platform and HP decided that although they wouldn’t kill their platform entirely, they wouldn’t grow and build devices based upon it (for now).  Both also show (as if we needed any more data) that Apple is a fierce competitor with a strong leadership position to protect.  Apple is also having a direct impact on Android’s success based upon litigation or the threat of litigation (the Samsung Galaxy situation in Europe shows this tangibly).  Rumored IP licensing fees paid by some Android-based handset manufacturers to Microsoft may also have had an effect.  HP’s respect for Apple as a competitor (and Android) may have been key in their decision to decrease their investment in webOS-based devices and to shift their focus to other business areas with more promise of profitability. 

As if these two pieces of news wasn’t enough, Steve Jobs then announced that he will immediately step down as Apple’s CEO. One can argue that Apple’s long and storied history is a personal legacy of the power and vision of a unique genius, but one can equally argue that the juggernaut that is Apple is much more than one man.  Apple’s place in these markets is currently so favorable, its position will likely continue to be very strong for at least the foreseeable future.

What will the coming months look like in the ongoing mobile platform wars?  What will become of RIM and the Blackberry OS?   What about Windows Phone 7 and beyond?  What about bada, MeeGo and other nascent platform entrants?  If the Motorola Mobility purchase and the webOS device retreat are telling us something, it is that if you intend to compete against Apple and Google, you better have deep pockets, a long-term vision, and be prepared for an all-out fight.  I am most definitely interested in watching it play out.

Dan Noal is a Senior Solutions Architect at Wind River with worldwide responsibility for Mobile and Tablet markets.  Dan has worked at Wind River for 14+ years and prior to his current role led the Mobile Service Practice in the Wind River Professional Solutions and Services Organization. Dan has B.S. and M.S. degrees in Computer Science from UCLA.