By Harry McCracken | Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 8:50 am
Back in the 1990s, in the world of technology, it certainly seemed that if one company was a winner, everyone else was by definition a loser. It’s a concept known as the zero-sum game. And back then, nobody played it better than Microsoft.
When Office got popular, 1-2-3, WordPerfect, Harvard Graphics, and other programs fizzled. Internet Explorer surpassed 90 percent market share in the browser business, reducing Netscape Navigator to a has-been. Windows boomed, and the Mac’s market share went in only one direction: down.
Again and again, Microsoft won and everyone else lost. Including consumers who preferred products from other companies.
Plenty of people think that the epic technology battles are still zero-sum games–especially the most epic one of the moment, the competition between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
Here’s Katherine Noyes at PCWorld:
Android accounted for 25.5 percent of worldwide smartphone sales in the third quarter of 2010, according to a recent Gartner report, making it the No. 2 operating system (OS) on the planet. That’s particularly impressive given the measly 3.5 percent of the market Google’s platform held just a year ago–impressive, but terrifying, if you’re on the iPhone team.
Apple’s iOS, meanwhile, fell from a 17.1 percent market share a year ago to 16.7 percent in this year’s third quarter, Gartner reported.
In short, Apple may always have its share of fans among consumers who don’t mind living in its “walled garden,” but there’s no way it can compete in the market as a whole with the diverse, compelling and powerful platform that is Android.
It’s tempting to assume that good news for Android is bad news for iOS and iOS users–but I think there’s far more evidence that the era of the zero-sum game is over. Multiple flowers can bloom, and we consumers can pick whichever one appeals to us without undue fear of our mobile OS being driven into irrelevance.
The rise of Firefox was one of the early signs that the zero-sum game rules no longer applied. When it first appeared in 2004, it wasn’t clear that there was a sustainable market for more than one Windows-based Web browser. But there was. And Firefox didn’t need to to get to 90 percent market share to be vibrant and healthy–even when it had ten percent of the market, it had a remarkably rich ecosystem, with thousands of add-ons.
Today, there are more viable browsers than ever: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. As long as the organizations that build them stay interested, they can peacefully coexist for years to come.
With Android and iOS, there’s even more reason to think that both can have bright futures. For one thing, the real opportunity isn’t stealing customers from the other guy–it’s reaching out to the millions of people who don’t yet own a smartphone at all. (As I wrote in an earlier item, nobody agrees on what percentage of consumers own smartphones, but it’s way, way less than 100 percent.) Millions of first-time smartphone buyers may buy iPhones; millions may buy Android handsets.
As Firefox proved, robust ecosystems aren’t contingent on market dominance. In terms of raw quantity of users, Google will surely outperform Apple–how could it not, considering that there are hundreds of Android models vs. Apple’s grand total of two (the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS)? But as long as the iPhone platform has millions of users, it can have an outstanding collection of third-party apps and accessories. And much of the stuff we do on smartphones–e-mail, Web browsing, and more–is platform agnostic; nobody is going to send e-mail in a form that can only be received on an iPhone, or create a Web site that only works well on an Android phone.
Come to think of it, the Mac also shows that the zero-sum game is over. Even if its marketshare has crept up to ten percent or so, Macheads are radically outnumbered by Windows types. But that’s fine–Apple makes billions in profits from Macs and dominates the market for $1000-plus machines, and Mac users have a great platform that isn’t going anywhere. (Even Apple haters can’t make a rational case that the Mac is endangered anymore–the best they can do is to call Mac users names and insist they’re part of a cult.)
For some people, the end of the zero-sum game is tough to deal with. (I certainly know iPhone owners who’d like to see Android fail, and Android owners who’d take pleasure in the iPhone petering out.) For those of us who like competition and choice, though, it’s reason for rejoicing. I may not use the same products that you do–but I hope your favorites are wildly successful for years to come.
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