Friday, December 11, 2009

Platform wars

Things are getting interesting in technology. A lot of new players have entered the arena and there will be a lot of shake-out in the next couple of years. Lines are blurring between PCs, netbooks, phones, MP3 players, and digital book readers. All of these can now play music and most of them can browse the Internet.

The big loser is Microsoft. I'm not sure that they've noticed yet but they have become irrelevant to all of the interesting technologies. Yes, they have a new operating system out. You can run a crippled version on netbooks. That's about it. It doesn't do anything that the old versions of Windows didn't do and it doesnt' run on anything except PCs.

Microsoft did introduce a new touch-screen Zune which got good reviews. This may be their salvation if they can expand it into phones. It's long-term success is doubtful. Previous versions were easy to find at places like Walmart and Target. The new Zune HD is not. Walmart offers "ship to store" which means placing an order and coming back in a day or two. There is no sign of it at Target.

Regardless, touch-screen MP3 players are the little brothers to the new breed of touch phone. Microsoft has a version of Windows Mobile that runs on these but it is a third-tier player.

Several ebook readers came out this year. All of them have significant flaws. The biggest one is that you still pay twice as much for an ebook as for a paperback. On top of that, you don't really buy books. You buy the rights to read them on a specific platform or device. They only make sense if you carry a lot of hardbacks around with you. The real purpose of these devices is to tie you to one book-seller. I expect them to eventually vanish.

For the last few years Apple owned the touch phone market. That is over. There are a slew of competing phones on the market. I'm going out on a limb and predicting that Google android will be the eventual winner. The phone market right now looks a lot like the PC market did in the early 1980s and the lesson from that is that the operating system that runs on the most platforms wins. Google's Android is not tied to a specific phone company or manufacturer the way that all of the other phones are. They have also announced the Chrome operating system which is designed to run on netbooks. Nothing will actually run or be stored locally. Chrome will do nothing except run the Chrome browser and everything else will be a web service running somewhere else. This is a direct threat to Microsoft.

Microsoft practically gave away MSDOS in the 1980s in order to spread as far as possible. Google is giving away their operating system. Their goal it to get as many people onto their search engine as possible. With wide acceptance running across multiple platforms they could easily be the default operating system for everything smaller than a business workstation.

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