Smartphone Platforms Max'd Out

Over at O’Reilly Raven Zachary is speculating on what Palm’s announcement will be in January, and whether they will finally ship their Linux-based OS or jump in with one of the existing major platforms, which would just leave them with either Android or Windows Mobile as I can’t see Apple letting them have the iPhone OS…

Palm used to be a dominant platform with a vibrant developer community. It had mojo. Today, only iPhone and Android have mojo. Windows Mobile is still very popular, but it doesn’t have nearly the buzz or, from what I see clients asking for, the development interest. So there two dominant platforms and one secondary one. Two secondary ones if you count Palm’s ancient OS, but I don’t think that’s a fair comparison to Windows Mobile. So call it two and a half.

We see the same kind of pattern elsewhere. In PC OS’s there are 2-3 platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux) and no room for any others. In social networking there are 2-3 platforms (MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn) and while there’s lots of start-up activity at this point it’s hard to see how any will succeed in anything beyond a niche capacity; people just don’t want to have to invest effort in more than a couple of social networks, and app developers and advertisers will be focused on the ones with the most traffic. In gaming platforms there are 3 (Xbox, Playstation, Wii now making Nintendo a full-fledged member again). Developers don’t have the resources to work on more than 2 or 3, often not even more than 1. Customers tend to gravitate toward safer bets in dynamic categories, which reinforces the hegemony of the major players.

If you’re not in that top 2 or 3, it’s a better bet to swallow your pride and jump in with them rather than try to go it alone. (Note that this is primarily in a category that relies a lot on network effects — if you are in a business of products that are relatively independent then this argument doesn’t necessarily hold up.)

What will Palm do? They are in a pickle, with a lot of legacy apps to support, and a choice of staying with their former arch enemy (Windows Mobile) or going with a jury-still-out OS (Android). Unless they are able to pull off some Rosetta Stone miracle that unifies several OS’s smoothly, I can’t see a new Palm OS working out for them. If they’d got it out several years ago it could have worked, but today, no.

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