The iPad Mini, Nexus 4 and Surface are arguably the three most anticipated devices left to launch in 2012. Their diversity speaks volumes for the strength of competition in the mobile sector, but they also illustrate something else: the escalation of major platform developers wanting to take control of hardware and software.
Interestingly, while in the mixer for some time, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer only made a song and dance about it this week. “Last year in this letter [to company shareholders] I said that, over time, the full value of our software will be seen and felt in how people use devices and services at work and in their personal lives. This is a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves – as a devices and services company.”
Google has also gained similar confidence. The original ‘Nexus One’ was merely a tentative guideline to inspire change in the lacklustre handset designs which greeted early versions of Android. Satisfied then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt even declared its dalliance with hardware over, but since then it has been full steam ahead with the Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7 tablet and the aforementioned Nexus 4 imminent.
For Apple hardware is a non-issue. Run-ins with third parties licensing its Apple II ROMs in the 70s and Mac ROMs in the mid-90s left scars which have seen it tightly control computer, tablet and phone design ever since. Instead the control it seeks is software as it feverishly fights to patch core holes in functionality. To date success has been mixed with Apple Maps lambasted, Ping failing to get a foothold in social networks and – Siri aside – the lack of a credible search engine. Yes where Microsoft and Google are strong Apple struggles, and vice versa.
But why the sudden land grab from all three parties, why the sudden discomfort with long established business models and partnerships? Cowboy logic: they’re not sure the town is big enough for all of them.
Funnily enough they’re probably wrong. The opposing ideologies’ of Android and iOS may seem like a fine battleground between light and dark (allegiances of which are formed on an almost tribal basis), but a third party offering a blend of both is generally welcome to moderate sanity. The trouble is all three know any one of them is expendable and with each now largely a match for functionality, polish and potential Apple, Google and Microsoft have realised sales decisions can be made equally based on aversion to weaknesses as attraction to strengths.