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Will a third major platform benefit Android users?

We take a shot at uncovering the potential benefits and disadvantages for Android users should a third major platform emerge in the mobile ecosystem.
April 6, 2013
Google and Apple are the two companies that provide the dominant operating systems in the mobile industry. Microsoft and BlackBerry (formerly RIM) are struggling to regain some relevance, while companies new to the game, such as Amazon, Ubuntu, and Mozilla are also aiming to take a bite of this ever growing pie.

In this context, we look at the benefits and drawbacks that a third strong mobile platform would bring to the average Android user.

Meet the Challengers

By now, it’s clear that Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS are the only two major players in the mobile platform game. Recent reports indicate that nine out of ten smartphones sold globally are running one of these two operating systems.

In the tablet market, after a long period of almost complete Apple iPad domination, Android made some great progress, mostly thanks to the excellent Nexus 7.

We should note that Amazon’s Kindle Fire line-up, which is especially successful in the United States, is running a forked version of Android. Technically speaking, Amazon has created a new platform, although its roots are still with Android.

BlackBerry has recently launched the BlackBerry 10 platform, probably the last chance the Canadian company has to regain its lost relevance. However, it remains to be seen if the new features introduced with BB10 are enough to draw customers in.

One company that you can never rule out in the mobile sector is Microsoft. No matter how many times it fails, Steve Ballmer’s team will still have enough resources to go at it again. With all the resources and money the Redmond-based company has been splurging, there’s a chance Microsoft will gain some relevance in the mobile industry at some point.

One new competitor in the mobile platform wars is Ubuntu for phones (not to be confused with Ubuntu for Android). The Linux-based operating system promises to bring all the things people love about the Ubuntu desktop OS on your smartphone.

And just when you thought that the mobile platform market couldn’t become any more crowded, the Mozilla Foundation announced that they’ve already signed partnerships with hardware manufacturers that should soon materialize in the first batch of budget-friendly Firefox smartphones.

Analyzing the chances that each of these platforms has to gain real traction would require an inordinate amount of time. For the time being, we’re more interested in answering a different, but related question: will the rise of a third powerful player benefit Android users?

More Competition

The first thing that comes to mind when discussing the possibility of a third powerful platform is increased competition. Just as with any other markets and products, quality is driven by the number and competence of the big players in that market.

This could translate to more features and content being added to each one of the platforms, as the parent company needs to find more ways of topping its competitors. In addition, adding a third player would automatically motivate both Apple and Google to focus on being more creative and innovative.

Unfortunately, I believe that an enhanced competition would also mean that exclusive content availability will become a major focus point for the platform owners. From an end-user perspective, this could mean that an increasing percentage of movies, shows and music tracks will be available on one platform and one platform only, contrary to the principles of an ideal world where all the content is available on all platforms.

The App Factor

Currently, a mobile app developer really needs to focus on developing for iOS and Android only, but if a third popular platform would bite off the combined market share of the dominant players we have at the present, app developers would have to develop a native app for the third platform as well.

So you see, the rise of a third major mobile platform would mean that companies that specialize in mobile app development will have to invest more time, effort and money into their apps. Users will experience this phenomenon working against them in one of several ways: an increasing number of apps of paid apps will arise, the average price for paid apps will increase, while the average quality will decrease.

This whole app problem could be avoided by focusing more on cross-platform HTML5 apps instead of native apps, but although the new standard will surely gain traction amongst app developers who want to keep their costs down, I believe that it will take a few years before HTML5-based apps will start yielding a quality level justly comparable to that of native apps.

When it comes to app availability and quality, users of both Android and iOS will have to lose once a third platform eventually appears with a double-digit market share.

A Premature Conclusion

Unfortunately, I find that it is yet too early to draw the line and say for sure that the rise of a third major platform would be profitable for the Android platform and for end-users. I’m sure many will disagree, but there’s a voice in the back of my head screaming “app quality” when analyzing this scenario. Sure, with increased competition, new and cooler features will surely be rolled out by Google. But the reality is that the most important component of a mobile platform is comprised by the apps that are available and properly optimized for the respective platform.

What could this scenario bring about? If, for instance, BlackBerry 10 would take off, will Android users have more to benefit from this than they will have to lose?