The End of Standardized Platforms

on February 24, 2016

Historians of the technology industry observed a pattern that was predictable with regards to new computing platforms. In the early days of a computing segment, like mainframes, minis, and desktops, there was a great deal of platform fragmentation. These early computing systems often ran proprietary software and operating systems with little interoperability. Eventually, a standard emerged — Windows. Even though Macs stuck around, their market share stayed well below 3% for much of the build-out of the PC era. Here is a visual to show how platforms started fragmented and then standardized around Windows.

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What you are looking at is operating system share of devices sold annually. Of computing devices sold for most of the time period above, Microsoft was the standard. Fast forward to today and we see a slightly different picture emerge. Windows runs on PCs and Android and iOS run on mobile devices, giving us three primary operating systems occupying the bulk of computing devices sold each year.

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You can see as the pie went from several hundred million computing devices sold each year to now almost 2 billion computing devices sold annually (when you add up PCs, tablets, and smartphones), the pie has gotten much larger but the landscape has also changed. While Android has the largest chunk of the pie, they do not have the 97% share Microsoft once had. The size of the pie and the global diversity of the consumer market brought with it the opportunity for several computing platforms to exist simultaneously.

If we take a step back and look at the installed base, we see an even clearer picture of the diversity in computing platforms in use today as well as the size of the market.

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There are now well over three billion active computing devices in the world with five primary operating systems/computing platforms — Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, and AOSP (non-Google) Android running in China. The key point here is, with the addition of scale in mobile and the inclusion of the global consumer market, there is no single standard computing platform. The question then is, what will happen with things like Virtual/Augmented reality platforms or artificial intelligence platforms? Should we expect VR/AR or Artificial Intelligence to unify and one single platform emerge like during the enterprise PC days or will many different platforms exist as we see today in consumer computing?

I tend to lean toward the latter. While VR/AR will start off segmented with Oculus having a platform, Sony having a platform, Microsoft having a platform, Google having a platform and even Apple having a platform eventually, it may also stay segmented rather than consolidated.

The global consumer smartphone market has shown us it can sustain many platforms so perhaps whatever comes next will follow the same paradigm. As I’m observing with wearables, where the market is actually developing into a rich segmentation, perhaps VR/AR or artificial intelligence will do the same, adding new layers of computing platforms onto the existing ones rather than consolidating into a single one.