Once upon a time, at the dawn of the smartphone age, there were two operating systems competing for market share – much the same as today’s mobile landscape, in fact. But whereas today’s two combatants are made by Apple and Google, the first smartphone wars occurred between a company no longer in existence – Palm – and one which, somewhat surprisingly, only holds a sliver of the market today: Microsoft.
Back then (only about a decade ago, really), Microsoft offered one of the most configurable platforms in smartphone history, first called PocketPC, and later changed to Windows Mobile. It was the goto platform for real mobile enthusiasts, because of all the third-party tools available for building and flashing custom ROMs. And it was also embraced by average users, because of the wide range of software available, as well as the slew of customizability options, especially for the homescreen. Sound familiar? To me, it sounds like Android.
Even though Microsoft has continued to compete in the mobile space, a 2011 reboot of the platform completely changed all of its important characteristics. Windows Phone 7, incompatible with any existing Windows Mobile handsets, attempted to regain market share lost to upstart Apple and its iPhone by adopting many of the same features and philosophies as its primary competitor. To the end user, that meant the end of custom ROMs, sideloaded apps, and a severe degradation of homescreen options.
Meanwhile, Google started to attract more and more customers to its nascent Android platform by moving in the completely opposite direction; the open source operating system was built for tinkerers to hack, customize, and remix any way they saw fit. Whereas Windows Phone was trying to emulate the iPhone’s success by becoming more like iOS, Android, in many ways, began to look like the very Windows Mobile OS that Microsoft was so eager to abandon. When viewed in this context, I think it’s fair to say that, while developed by competing companies, Android is much more of a spiritual successor to Windows Mobile than Windows Phone is.
That’s not to say Windows Phone (which is dropping the “Phone” next year when it debuts as Windows 10, the same name – and same code, more or less – as Redmond’s PC operating system) is a sub-par platform; in fact, many of its users will be fans for as long as it exists, and they are very vocal in their support and admiration, touting its smooth operation and unique user interface and design language. But a certain type of user – and there are a lot of them out there, as evidenced by the popularity of the XDA forums – enjoys nothing more than tweaking his or her handset, making it as unique, as powerful, and as functional, as possible.
Out of the three mainstream platforms currently on the market, only Android allows the end user a very high degree of customizability; even if you don’t want to root your device, there are plenty of third party launchers, live wallpapers, and widgets to create an experience completely unique and eminently useful. And if you do root, it opens up an even higher potential for customization, enabling you to flash any one of dozens of developer-created ROMs that add new features, remove bloatware, and even upgrade to a newer version of the OS before it officially becomes available over-the-air (if it happens at all).
It’s pretty clear that Google understands the mindset of the early adopter very well – so much so that it markets its own line of Nexus devices that offer a naked build of Android out of the box, and with that, the promise of official OS updates sooner than any other OEM-built product. Plus, Google envisions a future where not only is the software highly configurable, but the actual hardware itself, too: its Project ARA aims to commercialize a standardized system for building ones dream handset piecemeal (and upgrading the internal components as a hedge to futureproof them), in much the same way that PC enthusiasts have been able to assemble their own rigs for many years.
So, did Microsoft make a mistake by emulating the locked down nature of the iPhone and ceding the enthusiast market to Android? I’d argue that it certainly did: while the number of early-adopters may be rather small compared to the mainstream phone-buying masses, it’s early adopters who are most vocal in their support of one platform versus another, and it’s early adopters who convince their mainstream counterparts to buy into one ecosystem versus another, in many cases. Windows Mobile filled that role well for Microsoft, especially in contrast to its less-tweakable rival at the time, in the form of the PalmOS. Fast forward to Windows Phone, which is still locked up tight, even in a world where the iPhone can be jailbroken and customized to a certain degree.
It’s no surprise, then, that Android has come as far as it has, eating into Apple’s market share more and more every quarter. It is the Windows of the mobile space, but unfortunately for Microsoft, it’s what Windows Mobile might have continued to be had the company not been so laser-focused on chasing and emulating the market leader (for a moment in time, anyway). The future looks even brighter for Android at a time when Windows (Phone) risks being marginalized to near obsolescence.
Evan Blass at Google+
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