Do we need a third mobile platform beyond Apple and Android?

Aug 2, 2010
Finance

How many mobile platforms do we want? Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Microsoft (MSFT) are about to force the issue. Right now, it looks like just two operating systems will dominate the mobile Web – Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone/iPad platform, and Google’s (GOOG) Android platform running on devices made by all sorts of hardware makers. Good things come […]

How many mobile platforms do we want? Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Microsoft (MSFT) are about to force the issue.

Right now, it looks like just two operating systems will dominate the mobile Web – Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone/iPad platform, and Google’s (GOOG) Android platform running on devices made by all sorts of hardware makers.

Good things come in twos

And maybe two is right. We ended up with two major PC platforms (Windows, Mac). Outside of tech, we have two stove platforms (gas, electric); two dominant colas (Coke, Pepsi); two models of humans (men, women); two road platforms (drive on the right, drive on the left). When you move to three, stuff gets confusing, especially in that last category.

Yet on stage at the recent Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference, Todd Bradley, head of HP’s Personal Systems Group, said HP bought Palm earlier this year almost entirely for its operating system, webOS.

“WebOS really is the operating system of the future,” Bradley stated. Then he talked about how HP – the biggest computer maker in the world – has the scale to drive webOS into the marketplace, win over app developers, and challenge Apple and Android.

In other words, HP will likely be the only company building webOS devices, but Bradley believes that’s enough. It’s like the U.S. sticking with feet and miles instead of going metric. When you’re big enough, who cares what the rest of the world does?

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Added Jon Rubenstein, the Palm chief who was on stage with Bradley: “It’s reasonable to have three to five (mobile) operating systems out there.” One of them, of course, being webOS.

Microsoft goes for another tablet

To add to the tumult, last week Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer chimed in. Making a successful Windows-based tablet is now “job one” at Microsoft, Ballmer proclaimed. Never mind that few consumers are sitting around thinking, “Jeez, I wish I had an iPad, but with Windows.” Or that Microsoft has spent more than a decade trying to make a popular Windows tablet, with little success. Ballmer is determined to make Windows into a popular mobile platform.

At Brainstorm Tech, Kevin Johnson, CEO of Juniper Networks (JNPR), said he thinks there will be more than two but less than 10 viable mobile platforms. Ralph de la Vega, who runs AT&T Wireless (T), said that developers are the key to the platform wars.

“An OS needs a huge base of developers making lots of apps consumers want, and that in and of itself will drive OS trends,” de la Vega said.

Although, in a chicken-and-egg gambit, developers will choose to create apps for the platforms the most consumers and enterprise users buy. At the moment, users are voting overwhelmingly for Apple and Android, and a little for BlackBerry. (Oh, and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIMM) also plans to come out with an iPad-like gadget.)

Android seen separating from the pack

The Brainstorm Tech audience answered a survey question about which platform will become dominant: 51% said Android; 33% said Apple; 10% said webOS and 3% BlackBerry. Windows fell off the bottom somewhere.

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Users, at least, should be thankful for the competition. The truth is that webOS is a slick mobile platform with some features still absent from Apple and Android. If Bradley and even Ballmer can push Apple and Google to do better, that’s a good thing – even if we eventually wind up with just two winners.

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