The New Platform Battle

on March 4, 2014

For decades now, debates have raged, developers have been wooed and dollars have been spent trying to convince the world of the value of various consumer-focused computing platforms. From the early days of Apple DOS, AmigaOS, Atari TOS, and MS-DOS; through the middle period of Windows and MacOS; to the modern battles of Android, iOS, Windows Phone and more, there’s probably more time and energy spent on these operating system issues than virtually any other aspect of modern computing.

While I don’t expect these ongoing skirmishes to end anytime soon, I believe we are on the cusp of a new type of platform battle that will start to make those debates less relevant. I’m referring to services platforms, or what I call a “metaOS”. The concept behind a metaOS is something that lives beyond (or above) the existing platforms that drive today’s devices (hence the name), yet can be accessed through them to achieve an end user’s goal: mapping a destination, communicating with a friend, accessing media content, sharing a file, or much more. Virtually all of today’s device platforms first offered applications with these capabilities and, over time, these applications have morphed into services that make these functions easier and/or faster to do.[pullquote]The concept behind a metaOS is something that lives beyond (or above) the existing platforms that drive today’s devices, yet can be accessed through them to achieve an end user’s goal.”[/pullquote]

The platform creators (Microsoft, Google, Apple) have built services that are tightly tied to their base platform, both to offer a more seamless experience and because they recognize an opportunity to monetize these services over time. In fact, business models built around this core concept of linking revenue-generating services to essentially “free” platforms.

But what happens if this binding link between device platforms and services is broken? To my mind, a very interesting and exciting next few years as companies are forced to reinvent themselves, reconsider with whom they partner (or acquire), and work to build a comprehensive metaOS-style offering that delivers a set of services that people want, regardless of the device platforms they currently own and use.

One of the critical turning points for this shift occurred at last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Just prior to the culmination of its purchase by Microsoft, Nokia made the initially rather confusing announcement of a line of Android Open Source Project (AOSP)-based smartphones called the X series. Many have misinterpreted the news as somehow giving in to Google. (Apparently, including some who walk the halls in Redmond.) As has been thoughtfully explained elsewhere on this site, however, the announcement is actually a very clever strategic move on several levels. For the sake of my argument, I want to focus on only one aspect of it. By integrating Microsoft-owned services on top of a Google OS, Nokia (and presumably at least some people at Microsoft) redirected the focus of the conversation away from the device OS and onto the services platform. That one move, by itself, constitutes a dramatic shift in strategy for Microsoft and places a very big spotlight on the shift in emphasis that I mentioned at the beginning of this column—the focus on services that sit above and beyond a simple device platform.

Now, to be fair, there are a number of challenges associated with this Nokia/Microsoft move. First, most people still focus on device platforms because platform-specific applications are where they currently achieve their intended goals. Over time, however (and the exact timeframe is today’s $64,000 question), I expect we will see many of the most popular applications evolve into platform-agnostic services, partly because business models are expected to move this way. In fact, arguably, many of them (think Yelp, Facebook, What’s App, Instagram, etc.,) already have. Another challenge is that the quality of some of Microsoft’s services are not up to the standards of the competition, particularly around its media offerings. That issue, however, could be addressed with the right acquisition (or acquisitions).

But the Nokia X-Series news wasn’t the only announcement from MWC to highlight this shift towards services. The Jolla Sailfish OS announcement described a business model and an OS where services from various sources could essentially be plugged in, letting vendors create a product that came “prebundled” with whatever combination of services they felt their customers would want. So, for example, if a company like China-based Alibaba wanted to offers its customers a mobile phone with direct links to its ecommerce sites and included its electronic payment services in it, they could. (To be clear, there is no announcement of such a phone—just a possibility.) Now, Jolla has even bigger challenges to get to meaningful scale than Microsoft/Nokia do with their X-Series, but still, it’s an intriguing new alternative.

Yet another reason to think about this move away from platform OS’s and towards a service-based metaOS is the next set of devices: smart wearables. As discussed in my column from last week on smart watches, OS platforms on wearables are going to be almost irrelevant, but access to services will be critical, so the need for a set of services that can be accessed from any device is going to be increasingly important. Given the growing OS diversity in most people’s collection of “regular” devices (PC, tablets and smartphones), the demand for platform-independent services is just going to get that much stronger.

To be clear, the implications of this shift go well beyond a discussion about Android and Windows Phone. Apple, Microsoft, and Google, as well as lots of other major companies with popular services but without current device platforms (think Facebook and arguably Amazon) need to think about, and many likely will, organize a set of service offerings that people can access, regardless of their device platform. Of course, some may choose to keep their services with only their platform, at least in the short term, but ultimately I believe the companies who are willing to move to multi-device platform support will gain some key advantages that promise to reshape the “metaplatform” wars for years to come.