Daring Fireball’s wishful thinking

I totally understand where John Gruber is coming from with his post on “The OS Opportunity“. The problem is that there’s a whole lot of wishful thinking in there.

First of all, go read John’s post. Rather than try and summarise here and potentially mischaracterise what he’s saying, you just go read it.

Back? Good. Then we’ll begin. John’s first point is that what kept people on DOS was simply file compatibility:

“In those days, before DOS ran most competing platforms out of the market, interoperability and data interchange were at best difficult, and often impossible. Data was stored in incompatible file formats written to incompatible floppy disks1 by incompatible apps compiled for incompatible CPU architectures. Even later in the ’80s, when networking became common (at least in businesses) the network protocols were proprietary.

That was the world where DOS won out. Get everyone on DOS and you could all open each other’s WordPerfect and 1-2-3 files, if only by sharing them on floppy disks. So DOS gained users, and because it gained users it got developers, and because it gained developers it got more users.”

While this is partially true, it ignores two other factors which always mitigate against switching platform – and which continue to do so today.

The first is familiarity. Familiarity, to geeks like me and John, is something you often avoid like the plague. Geeks like us like tinkering with new stuff, learning how to do new things with new tools. We switch because it’s fun (today’s example of this from John: Switching to Camino. Only geeks like us look at switching browsers as the kind of thing you can do on a whim. Why else does the blatantly inferior IE retain so much market share?)

But for someone with years of experience of DOS (or Windows), running WordPerfect and Lotus, switching to an alternate operating system and set of applications was always a big deal. The path of least resistance was always to stick with the platform you’re on, because learning new stuff got in the way. GUIs mitigated this a bit – but didn’t change the situation with applications. For someone who’s been using Excel professionally for 10 years, switching to Numbers is a big, big deal – and that’s despite Numbers being pretty easy to get your head around.

This is even more apparent in the business world, where switching means training hundreds of users in how to use the new tools. There’s a very good reason why corporates tend to be a couple of versions behind the latest, even for products where there’s a clear, delineated upgrade path and a level of familiarity.

The second reason is the oldest one in the book: money. If you’re a seasoned Windows user, switching from Windows to Mac doesn’t just cost you the time to learn new applications (even when there’s a Mac version of a Windows app, they’re usually different enough to cause angst). You have to actually buy the applications, because few (if any) companies give freebies to switchers.

Of course, this second issue isn’t an issue if you’re switching from closed source to open source. And some of it is also negated by being able to use freebie tools on the web. But the more complex your needs, the less likely it is that either can fill them. And the quality of both free online tools and open source stuff is (to be kind) variable, particularly when it comes to the kind of simplicity of interface design that someone switching OS’s is going to appreciate. I know – I’ve done it.

“A similar feedback loop is going on with the iPhone today, but it’s far less sticky. The DOS/Windows monopoly grew impregnable because it was a platform where the only way to play along was to join it.”

John’s right that this feedback loop is going on with the iPhone, and that it’s less sticky, but there’s two reasons for that. First, the smartphone software market is nascent: it’s in the equivalent of the era of (as John puts it) “the Apple II, the IBM PC and DOS, Commodore, Atari, Acorn. The TI-99/4A.”. People forget that DOS wasn’t the only game in town – only the weight of IBM’s brand and the anti-trust rules which allowed Compaq and a slew of others to clone the IBM PC really made it the overall winner. Even the iPhone, which is massive in terms of mindshare, only has 17% of the smartphone market. That’s about as much as the Apple II had at its high-point. The smartphone market is still massively fragmented – and it’s a very open question whether that will continue.

John’s bet, I think, is that it will continue to be fragmented – although I don’t think he overtly states this, so please forgive me if I’m reading something in that’s not really there.

I think that assuming this is true says a lot about what you believe is the future of mobile software. If you think that smartphone software is fundamentally one-trick apps, throwaways, stuff which is easy to develop and easy to dump, then jumping from one smartphone to another is always going to be easy.

But if you think that developers are going to create more and more complex apps, and that these are what consumers will increasing demand and use, then switching becomes more of an issue. The fact that Omnifocus is only on iPhone will almost certainly mean that my next phone will also be an iPhone, despite my constant pain at the fact that the iPhone doesn’t multi-task. If there was no Omnifocus, I would switch. And I suspect that I’m going to be increasingly not alone – with 100,000 apps, the potential for the “just one app that I need” being on iPhone grows.

“If Palm can create WebOS for pocket-sized computers — replete with an email client, calendaring app, web browser, and SDK — why couldn’t these companies make something equivalent for full-size computers? The hard part of what Palm is doing with WebOS is getting acceptable performance out of a cell phone processor.”

Because no one would buy it. It’s not like people haven’t tried. There’s a very good reason why people have chosen Windows netbooks over Linux ones, even when Linux has been cheaper – they want to run the apps they are familiar with. And they don’t generally just want web apps – they want native ones. Rich beats thin, every time.

“These PC makers are lacking in neither financial resources nor opportunity. What they’re lacking is ambition, gumption, and passion for great software and new frontiers. They’re busy dying.”

And this is where John’s wishful thinking really comes to the fore. Who, exactly, is dying? HP, which made $2.2 billion profit in its last quarter? Dell, which made $472 million profit? While those aren’t as good as Apple’s numbers (because SteveJ has played a very smart game), neither looks like a company that’s “busy dying” to me.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
  • Charles

    The profits made by HP are inflated by services; and it would be interesting to dig deeper into Dell’s. The reality is that if you look at the numbers, they are on razor-thin margins for each PC they sell; they make it up on associated services.

    And Dell has looked a bit poorly, in the long-term view, for some time now.

  • Ian Betteridge

    The margins on PCs are razor thin, of that there’s no doubt – but if you separate out services, HP still make around $900m profit from the PC business, which, again, is a long way from being “busy dying”.

    Dell, too, is healthy – it’s just not achieving its growth targets, arguably because of a series of mis-steps. And I can’t see any reason to think that investing hundreds of millions in building its own completely incompatible operating system would help it.

    John’s only argument appears to be “that’s what Apple does, and it succeeds”, which isn’t much of an argument.