When is a Smartphone OS not a Smartphone OS?

If you're thinking purely in terms of 'smartphones' whenever you think of iOS, Android and Windows Phone, you've blown it. It's so incredibly short sighted to think of these OSes as a smartphone play - they are all so much more than that.

These are the three OSes going to power consumer devices (phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, TVs, etc) for the next 20-30 years, or be the template for such. Google recently bought Motorola, so many assume they'll be making smartphones and tablets under a Google brand. But a key thing being overlooked is that Motorola's smartphones are also PCs; starting with the Atrix, every flagship Motorola phone has had the capability to turn into a laptop or desktop PC, or media center with the requisite dock. You drop the phone in the dock, start using the keyboard and mouse on your big screen LCD, and you have an instant computer - one that was in your pocket seconds earlier.

This is as much a part of Google's strategy as devices; Google is poised to take on the 'PC' market, and Android is finally their vehicle to let them do this.

Many originally called ChromeOS a shot across Microsoft's bow; today, several years later it's unclear where ChromeOS fits into an Android-everywhere strategy. Maybe the two will merge in the future, or maybe ChromeOS is more a research project for 'future disruption', to steal a term from Nokia. I don't think we're ready for a browser-only platform just yet, and I don't think the browser is the final evolution of the web by any stretch. Apps are as much part of the web as websites are; the web won't always mean HTML/JavaScript. Some key problems to solve are compatibility and search across this new web, of course, but that's a whole other article.

With Windows Phone, many posit that Microsoft is moving everything to the Windows RT kernel (aka Windows 8); the phone could be as much Windows 8 as the tablet or desktop. Microsoft have been pretty candid about their duelling Metro/Desktop environments in Windows 8, but it starts to paint a familiar picture once all the information is in play. Your Windows Phone, which may run on ARM or perhaps x86, could dock and power a desktop display, with a mouse, keyboard, and even legacy Windows apps. In the future, I see no distinction between Windows Phone and Windows; for Windows Phone to fail, the entirety of Windows has to go down with it.

A whole new generation of computing, where everything can be powered by one device; that's where Microsoft and Google are positioning themselves. They are platform makers, this is the most obvious and inevitable possible platform play. If you extrapolate a little, it's quite clear that this goes beyond devices; if we're talking about dumb desktop shells that you dock into, why not the same for phones and tablets? What if the computer itself is something you always wear - a wristband perhaps. Wirelessly, it could beam its display to a blank shell of a smartphone in your pocket, or the blank shell of a tablet, or a desktop PC, or augmented reality glasses.

Of course, this won't happen tomorrow, but it could easily happen in the next five years. It's not something on the distant horizon, either. We will start to see more docking phones like Motorola's, or phone/tablet devices like Padfone, or Google's Glasses technology. Eventually the physical connectors will go away, and the docking will all be wireless - at that point, for how long will we still need distinct devices, CPUs, memory and data connections for each display and input mechanism in our lives?

Apple, unlike the other companies, is a device maker, and completely opaque. I'm not sure a single-device strategy would make sense for them, at least in the short term, but I do expect iOS to spread to more devices and form factors. We've already seen it with iPad and AppleTV, and I still feel that iOS and OS X are on a collision course for the desktop. All of these OSes are the mainstream personal computer platforms of tomorrow.

The personal computer hasn't yet come. One day we will be the personal computer. Current generation smartphone OSes are only the tip of the iceberg, and the big players understand this. It's a completely different game being played now. And this, more than anything else, is why companies who think they're just making smartphones (RIM, for example) will have no place in the world of tomorrow.

On Windows Phone 7 and Apps

Much has been said recently about the state of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 re the lack of quality apps. In my mind, there are some pretty big reasons why these quality apps don't exist:

1) The Silverlight framework, used to build all current third-party WP7 apps, is incredibly slow. Because it's running in an environment far from the native code layer, you just can't pull off the same kind of experience you can on an iOS device. I regularly have performance issues in animation and layout code on WP7 that I haven't seen since the original iPhone, but you needn't take my word for it; check any number of apps on the store (Twitter apps, for example) and you will find that scrolling performance is ghastly, or that cells vanish as you scroll (reminiscent of webOS). There is a way to fix this - native code. All rumors point to Microsoft offering native code access to external developers at some point in the future, which should be a massive performance win. Perhaps WinRT is it, and WP8 apps will be code compatible with Windows 8, too. Of course, unless they have a powerful enough native framework to make great UI apps (like UIKit and co are on iOS), it won't make a difference. As an example, compare and contrast Path on iOS vs Path on Android. Good effort, but the Android version is a hollow shell of the iOS app, and that isn't by choice. On WP7, right now all you're going to get are hollow shells of iOS apps - that's all that's possible with Silverlight.

2) This may be a contentious point, but all the good developers and designers are on Mac OS X. This is why the Mac (at least on OS X) has always had the better apps of the two main OSes. This has always been the case, and remains one of the key differentiators on OS X.

These are also the developers and designers making top iOS apps; they likely will not even have a Windows license, a Windows machine, or any access to Visual Studio to develop and test a WP7 app. In short, asking them to use Windows to develop apps is abhorrent to many of them.

These are the people you need to create the great apps. This is also why there are no great apps on Android, either; they don't like Android or its design enough to invest effort in it (some notable exceptions, like DoubleTwist - whose head of design has worked for Apple, and Instagram). The almost universal response from these designers and developers, tho, is that they really like WP7. If I were Microsoft, I would really be paying attention to this: you're not going to get these people by offering money, you're going to get them by making it super easy for them to build apps. If that means you have to build or buy an IDE for OS X, then so be it. Having to reboot out of our native environment into Windows is enough of a deterrent; remember, these people don't need you, you need them. They won't flock to WP7 work to pay their bills, they'll flock to iOS.

These users are key; if you don't convince them to make apps, and provide a framework capable of making the apps they come up with, then your platform will never be good enough. It says a lot that the entire WP7 design team at Microsoft were iPhone users back when I first met them at MIX 2010. Don't squander that opportunity.