Google co-founder Sergey Brin was quoted (off the record) last fall as saying that "Android and Chrome will likely converge over time". (cnet)
Eric Schmidt (Google CEO) put it a little "differently" in an interview about the same time. To paraphrase – Android is for phones and Chrome is for PC's and netbooks and they don't completely overlap. (phandroid)
So, let see here…
- We have a cloud-only OS (Chrome) targeting netbooks and, uhh… PC's.
- We have an app-oriented OS (Android) targeting smartphones, the ultimate cloud device.
What's the difference between a netbook (or tablet) and a smartphone anyway? Slim device with 2.5 inch touchscreen? Probably a smartphone. Nine inch screen? Netbook if it has a keyboard, tablet if touchscreen only. How about a 5 inch screen?
Perfectly clear now on the market strategy? Didn't think so.
The iPhone, in classic Apple fashion, has cultivated a devoted high-end following based on its well-crafted human-machine interface and lively app ecosystem. RIM still dominates market share, based on price and network coverage. (Forrester) Even if Google/Android can get its hardware and apps up to the level of Apple, or broadens its network coverage, it will not be a game changer. Just another option in a space that's approaching too many options already.
So, what will the game changer look like?
The mixed signals out of Mountain View may provide a hint. I'm convinced that the next real game changer in mobile OS's will be more like Chrome than Android (or iPhone et. al.) Why shouldn't smartphones interact transparently with the cloud for apps, data, voice and everything else? Loading a new app on a smartphone should be as transparent as viewing a web page with an embedded applet in a browser. Why should I be tied in to micropayments at the iPhone (or Android or Blackberry or whatever…) app store?
But, there is one thing more. The ultimate game changer will evolve into standards. It will not be in the form of a specific OS – even if open source. Only with standards will competition and creativity be able to do for mobile computing what they did for the web based on HTTP/HTML.
Why would standards change the game? After all, smartphones comprise close to 20% of the handset market and growing fast. What's wrong with the current model?
Enterprise development for mobile platforms is most likely stifled by the current scheme. One could imagine mobile apps as successors (or at least complements) to today's enterprise portals. However, a choice between vendor lock-in and maintaining separate versions for each device does not encourage corporate investment.
The same factors also constrain competition in the general market for personal and commercial mobile apps, not to mention the market for handsets and mobile operating systems. The barrier for potential app vendors is the need to release to multiple platforms. The barrier for handset and OS vendors is the need to spin up a new app ecosystem.
So, the change in the game (if it happens) would certainly increase handset sales incrementally. Much more importantly, however, it would greatly expand what they are used for.
How do we get there? My crystal ball just went black, so here goes…
- The current fragmented, but lively, market is a necessary step along the way. We probably do not know enough today to write the standards, but experience with Blackberries, iPhones and Google phones will fill some of the knowledge gaps.
- A convergence of Chrome and Android could be an intermediate step.
- Someone will need to take up the mantle of keeper-of-the-standard. The newly consolidated Open Mobile Alliance seems like an obvious candidate, but given the checkered history of some of their predecessors (anyone remember WAP?) it is not clear whether they can rise to the level of a W3C.
There are many challenges on the way to an open, standards-based, rich mobile web.
- How to abstract out (or standardize) the myriad ways of interacting with a handheld device. (touchscreen, keyboard, thumb ball, buttons, multi-touch…) Early HTML had it easy – it assumed a QWERTY keyboard. Subsequent internationalization work may help light the way.
- How to keep hackers and spies from ruining the game for the rest of us.
Realistic vision? The current players certainly have mixed incentives. Unlike with the early Internet, the forces here are less geeks flying under the radar than moguls striving for world domination. An open, standard, rich mobile web will emerge if it enhances someone's balance sheet.
My prediction is at least another year or two of evolution of the current game. Google, with a Chrome/Android convergence (or someone out of the blue) could begin the move toward a rich mobile web (but a proprietary one). Will it ever become open and standard? That's anybody's guess, but I don't see the market forces to move things in that direction.