In yesterday’s blog I wrote a lot about the different operating systems and what differentiates them. However, I didn’t answer the question around how to build a user base or even more importantly the app base. For all operating systems there is a chicken and egg problem, which comes first the apps or the users – you can’t get users with out apps and no users will go with your system with no apps!
I think a look at how two companies have worked to overcome this is crucial to provide a path forward for the other operating systems. First of all, Google entered the mobile market in exactly this position. I wrote a paper on this while I was in my Master’s (written 2011) the really details this if you want to read that. Google decided to approach the app issue from a very different direction than Apple. First, Google offered a good deal of money for developers to begin making apps for the operating system. Second, Google create a different reimbursement structure for their purchases of apps that provided incentive for developers to develop apps for them. Apple would essentially take ~30% of the total price the developer charged for their apps. This rent seeking behavior of Apple means that the developers could make more money on Android if they sold the same number of apps in both ecosystems. Both of these provided incentives for developers to develop – free money and more money for development. Furthermore, Google made it extremely easy to port an app from iOS to Android which increased the app development rate – Apple of course worked to eliminate this benefit. Finally, Google had different payment schemes than Apple for ad revenue and is a significantly better company for dealing with ads than Apple to this day. All of these provided a great deal of incentive in addition to the fact that there have always been anti-Apple developers and consumers.
The second case (which I didn’t do a research paper on) is of course Amazon. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post Amazon rarely makes a profit on any of their Kindle sales. Amazon’s current foray into tablet’s was not a serious surprise to me. The Kindle was clearly an effort to learn about their users and their consumption habits. Amazon first targeted their most loyal customers, book readers. Tablets weren’t really on the horizon at this point as anything beyond a novelty that Microsoft was pushing and eReaders had a questionable spot in the market when Amazon came out with the Kindle (the same year as Apple’s iPhone – I feel that the Kindle was a bigger step for Amazon than the iPhone for Apple). It was widely successful. I personally bought a second generation Kindle in 2009 (and have since upgraded to Paperwhite 1st gen). Amazon over time continually refined the Kindle and looked for more content to bring to the users. Amazon began to experiment with browsers, apps, and other features. Even at this point the Kindle was Android based, but their own custom version. This marked on of the first forks in the operating system. Amazon also developed applications for iOS, PC, Chrome, and Android for Kindle users. This helped to increase adoption and encourage Amazon that digital content is extremely valued by consumers. When Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire line of tablets they continued to focus on content. This is apparent from the design of the operating system. Content is first and foremost. Books, TV shows, and Movies are easily accessible and essentially the default view for the device. Through a different type of content Amazon has attracted users, furthermore, they are likely attracting a different set of users than the iPad or Nexus market. These users are very consumption focused and less engaged with applications.
Amazon has continued to push the quality of their products and can now compete spec to spec with any top of the line Android or iOS device. Their advantage is the Amazon ecosystem (which many tech writers scoff at), which is more accessible and connected with prime on their devices.
How can other operating systems learn from these cases? The owners of new operating systems need to provide an easy development platform. Many of Android’s applications are developed in HTML5 which should make it easier for porting from one OS to another. Another option is to partner with a third party company (if you know about it or not) like Microsoft did with Blue Stacks where it is possible to play any Android app on a computer. Google is doing something similar with the Chrome App store and browser, essentially turning any Win8 machine into a Chrome OS computer. Firefox OS could go this route on any computer and help to encourage developers to think multi-platform like this. Of the two problems, I believe that the app problem is the easier one to solve assuming it’s easy and there are the right incentive for developers. There are many platforms or tools that can even the playing field. Including marketing that users are able to use other platforms on your platform.
The more difficult type of content to pull is the licensed content from the RIAA and MPAA type organizations. I think that there could be a way for this content to gain the same feel as the Amazon experience. A mobile OS could partner with either Hulu or Netflix to provide an exclusive or personalized experience for the app that allows tighter engagement, then partner with B&N and build a strong app presence for the Nook. The next step would be to develop a seamless transition between the Nook application and Netflix/Hulu so that on one hand you knew when you switched, but it felt painless and enhanced the experience. Such as recommending books or movies based on your consumption of the other.
Finally, I think the crucial step is to find the right market. There are tons of under served markets especially in the smart phone/tablet sector. Firefox OS is going after the extremely low budget market, while it’s likely that both Ubuntu and Cyanogenmod are going to be going after the extreme high end market. I think those two are going to have more competition with the Nexus line up of devices and the extra support Google is providing to non-Samsung manufacturers like ASUS and LG. Google is doing everything they can to keep the market competitive and not owned by a single manufacturer. Cyanogenmod and Ubuntu could also work those same manufacturers to help them develop other markets that aren’t served by Google.
I think that the battle is going to be on the low budget space. Amazon is working hard to capture that with powerful but affordable tablets that are subsidized by ads. While Motorola is going after a similar market with the Moto G, a high power phone that is affordable. However, if a company looks at the base of the pyramid they are likely to find a huge untapped market that will never even own a laptop. They will go from a phone only capable of texting directly to smart phone or tablet. Developing tools that these underserved users can exploit will create a huge market that will catapult the operating system past all the others in global market share. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to survive on little to no margin.