The Value of Software and the Evolution of Handheld Computing

on October 1, 2013

We are witnessing an unprecedented event in the history of computing. The upgrade from iOS 6 to iOS 7 is on pace to become the fastest operating system transition in history.

As I reflect on this reality it brings to light some very interesting observations.

The Value of Software

The first which is perhaps the most interesting is the value iPhone users associate with iOS.

With no other platform, mobile or others, do you see this level of demand on the day an OS comes out to upgrade.  iPhone customers value iOS.  This is significant in so many ways.

I’ve long argued that in the era of Microsoft, consumers ((I make a distinction between business consumers and mass market consumers)) used Windows because they had to, not because they wanted to.  Windows was used at work, school, etc., so it is what consumers used and bought for home.  Windows became the standard on PCs by default. ((I understand fully that there was a market in the early 90’s where passion for Windows existed particularly around Windows 95. Microsoft in those days was genuinely focused on brining computing to the masses, only the masses could not afford computers.))

Apple, however, maintains a level of interest in iOS despite the market being filled with viable choices.  The iPhone did not become the single device with more market share than any other device by default.  It has done so, and continues to gain ground, despite the market being flooded with valid alternate choices.  This was a market Microsoft never had with regard to Windows. This is why it is losing in mobility.  When it came to pure consumer markets, Microsoft never really had a fighting chance.

When you look at existing operating systems, it is hard to find any comparison to the demand for iOS.  The only thing that comes close is another OS from Apple, Mac OS X.  Apple routinely drives operating system transitions better than any other computing company. This is significant. It highlights the fact that consumers value Apple’s operating systems not just their hardware.  Can we say the same of Android? Windows? Windows Phone?

iOS differentiates the iPhone. If consumers value it then it is not just Apple’s hardware that is attractive but also their software. From a competitive advantage standpoint, this point can not be underestimated.

Not Just Consumers But Developers as Well

For whatever criticism Apple takes for controlling their platform, they have the best third-party development community of any platform out there.  The quality of applications on iOS and OS X is objectively superior than on other platforms.

What continually strikes me as fascinating is how creative the Apple developer community is and, more importantly, how passionate they are about software development.  I talk to many developers on all computing platforms and it is simply unparalleled.  More importantly, I use each computing platform and continually search for apps to truly push computing and make it accessible to the masses.  I find these apps more often and in greater frequency on iOS and OS X than any other computing platform.

I genuinely get the sense that Apple’s third party development community is interested in advancing computing and wholeheartedly embracing and taking advantage of the computing advancing hardware Apple provides them.

The only community in recent years where I remember this robust of third party developers was the Palm developer community. This is a significant distinction because this community jumped on board with handheld computing on what is arguably the first handheld computer in the Palm Pilot.  I see so many similar traits to the early days of Palm’s developer community embracing and being creative with hand held computing with todays iOS developer community.

The iPhone was arguably the first mass market hand held computer.  I would argue that it is still that product today and will increasingly become so in the future.  This distinction is important because it is also the way the iOS developers view the platform–as a handheld computer.  This is also how Apple views the iPhone.  This vision of handheld personal computing at a mass market level is key to advancing the platform.

The key observation in all of this is that consumers are embracing this vision and value the handheld computing hardware, software, and, to a degree, services Apple offers.  Apple embraces this vision and is laser focused on bringing hand held computers to the masses.  Developers are embracing this vision and creating new and unique software for hand held computing.

This, in my opinion, is the core mountain Microsoft and other competitors must climb.  The problem is, they have never really had an impassioned third party community like the one we see today for iOS.  Android benefits by default because many developer maintain an iOS first and Android second strategy.  The sheer size of the Android addressable market is playing in its favor.  But I am yet to see such a large developer community vested to advance hand held computing on Android either.

My advice to competing platforms like Android, Windows 8, and Windows Phone is to find developers and build a community doing unique and exclusive things on your platform and expose and highlight those things. Just having the same apps is not good enough. For competing platforms to evolve in a meaningful way with handheld computing it will require computing advancing developers on competing platforms. This has yet to be seen.

This is the challenge Apple has set up for competitors.  Apple’s differentiation is not just with hardware, or with software, although it certainly does both.  The more powerful differentiation Apple has over its competitors is its vision. Personal computing and advancing what every day people can do with personal computers has always been at the core of Apple’s vision. Now they are extending that vision to handheld computers. Right or wrong, Apple has a different view and vision for personal computing. Based on their success, I’d say they are on the right track.