Of OS Wars & App Wars

A long time ago, in a tech galaxy far far away, the personal computer operating system war came to a close. Standing on top of the heap, victorious, was Microsoft Windows.

For a time, it appeared that Windows would emerge as the only remaining OS, its ruthless assaults having obliterated every other competitor. But Apple, although reduced almost to ashes, eventually sent forth Mac OS X to mount a counter-attack. While OS X has never approached Windows’ level of supremacy, it gained a solid foothold and continues to make gains even to this day.

These two stand now alone among computer operating systems. As for the others…TRS-DOS, Atari OS, CP/M, and all the rest…they are fodder for museum displays. Even the venerable Linux survives with only a tiny blip of market share. 

The personal computer OS war is over. It’s so over that I will risk going out on a small limb and assert: No existing or future operating system will ever surpass Windows and/or OS X in market share. It’s done. Finito.

It is always possible that Microsoft or Apple will falter in the future, allowing for the possibility of a startup to gain headway. But it won’t matter. The tech world will have moved on by then to a different galaxy. The challenger would be the equivalent of a new and superior videotape format arriving to challenge VHS just when the world was transitioning to DVDs.

In fact, a transition of this sort is already well underway in the operating system universe — as we move to a mobile-centric (smartphone and tablet) galaxy and a new war. Actually, the transition is so far underway that the war is already almost over.

Once again, two leaders have emerged to claim a share of victory: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. They continue to slug it out to determine who will be on top when the dust settles. The final result is still not certain. What is certain is that it’s game over for everyone else: Blackberry, webOS, Symbian and the rest. The chart below (which does not include tablets, just smartphones) paints the picture better than any words.

There is one potential wildcard in the fray: Windows 8 mobile OS. Even this late in the game, Microsoft has sufficient muscle to play catch up. And Windows 8 is getting very favorable buzz. Even so, success for Microsoft is not guaranteed; the mobile version of the new OS has to succeed on phone and tablet hardware; it could still go the way of the Zune.

Regardless, there is a pattern here, one that repeats itself in major application software categories as well as in operating systems. After a new technology/category emerges, a wild-west battle ensues with a diverse array of products attempting to gain a foothold. After the initial battles die down, only two or three significant competitors remain. Those outside of the top three may not completely die, but their market share will never amount to more than 1 or 2%.

As one example, this has been the pattern for word processors. There was a time when MacWrite Pro, Word, WordPerfect, WriteNow, NisusWriter, and others fought for dominance on the Mac. Today, it’s pretty much Word, Pages and nothing else. While a multitude of word processors still exist, their combined marketshare appears to be less than a speck of flea dandruff.

We’ve seen the same thing happen with page layout software, web editing software, photo editing software, music creation software and more. Almost always, it’s the big companies that eventually dominate, squeezing out the wannabes. Occasionally, when a company like Adobe prices its software out of the reach of mere mortals, smaller competitors survive by offering more reasonably-priced consumer-oriented alternatives. Beyond that, everyone else is left to pick up the crumbs.

I believe a number of forces typically converge to produce this result. There’s the marketing strength of the bigger companies, of course. In addition, the top two or three products in a category are often truly superior to the rest; the rest may deserve to die. Finally, there’s the public’s intolerance for too much choice, especially when it’s among different mutually-incompatible formats. That’s one reason, for example, we would never maintain six different DVD formats.

And yet…there is one place where this “war of attrition” has so far not followed the usual path: mobile apps. To see this in action, go to the iTunes App Store and search for “photo edit.” When I did this, I got 360 matches — and this is probably an undercount.

And no, it’s not the case that there are two or three clear winners with 358 losers. When I perused the list of top 200 paid apps, I found Camera+ at number 11, PhotoEditor+ at 66 and Snapseed at 130. And that’s just the paid apps. Among the top 200 free apps, I found Camera Awesome (5), Instagram (9), Picture Effect Magic (38), Viddy (115) and numerous others.

Even Adobe has been unable to gain supremacy in its own backyard. The Adobe Photoshop Express app came in at 164. There was no sense that any single app or two had won, or was about to win, any war.

There are numerous reasons for what’s going on in the App Store. One is that iOS apps are limited in size and scope. They cannot offer the sort of all-in-one solution that, say, Photoshop can provide on a Mac. This opens an opportunity for various specialized apps that each do a few of the things an all-in-one app does. You then need several apps to provide all the tools you might want. However, even this doesn’t account for the large number of very similar small apps.

Perhaps the answer is that we are still in the wild-west days in the App Store. The inevitable attrition is still a few years down the road. Perhaps. If so, we may already be seeing the beginning of the end in a few categories, as when an app such as Tweetbot moves to surpass most other Twitter clients.

I believe there is one other important force at work: the nature of the App Store itself. It offers a democratization of software that is quite different from what existed on personal computers.

First, the App Store places all apps on a more-or-less equal footing. True, the big companies can spend more to advertise their apps outside of the Store. And this has an undeniable, although not decisive, effect. But, once inside the Store and you begin browsing, no one app has a consistent pronounced advantage over others in getting your attention.

Second, apps tend to be cheap (most often under $10). This means that users can afford to buy and maintain several similar apps. As one comparison, Adobe Photoshop Express for iOS is free! You can’t get much cheaper than that (although there are in-app purchases you can make). In contrast, Adobe Photoshop Elements for the Mac is $80. As for Photoshop CS5, if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

In the past, I’ve criticized the App Store for its too-closed approach and its sometimes capricious review process. That’s the downside. The upside is that the App Store provides an ecosystem that permits a wealth of high quality and inexpensive apps to thrive. The consumer is the beneficiary. I’m not certain this can last indefinitely. But I intend to enjoy it while I can.