Mobile is not a neutral platform (yet) and that is a great thing for startups

As I first read this superb piece on how mobile is not a neutral platform, my conclusion was that it should have been titled mobile is not a fully baked platform in that the central argument is: unlike the web of yesteryear, in the (mobile) Internet of today, the mobile OS vendors are still fighting a battle of differentiation by adding bits and pieces to their respective platforms that change fundamental aspects of both the user experience and how users discover and engage with new apps.

This was also true of the web of course: MS IE had all sorts of "innovative" ways to help users navigate, discover, and engage with publishers and Netscape gave chase in some cases and tried to chart their own course in others (anyone remember SmartTags?) However the key difference is that the web phase settled down with the collapse of the dot-com boom and so depending on how you measured it, 4-5 years after the platform differentiation phase had begun, it was over (thus paving the way for Google to grab ahold of control of distribution through better discovery). As Benedict points out, we are nowhere near this point in smartphones and quite unlikely to get there, whether we see an economic correction soon or not. There is simply far too much money in owning this much more personal platform for Apple, Google, the Android OEMs, and even Microsoft to stop trying.

But how does this affect the typical startup trying make its way in this world? The real question coming out of his analysis for me is: is it better to be a startup with a service or a product in this world of 2015 with the OS vendors constantly shifting the landscape under your feet as you try to gain purchase on the world or was the post-2000 period of the stable web/browser better? (putting aside of course the 2.5 billion extra people that are addressable which would otherwise overwhelm the calculus in the positive towards the present)

Short term what the mobile OSes are doing is breaking the traditional tradeoff between richness and reach of the user experience with each innovation: whether it is biometrics, 3d touch, AI, peripheral wearables or any further innovations we can't yet envision, entrepreneurs now can deliver much richer experiences without having to worry about how to get distribution in the face of platform vagaries _(Windows X.X with + Pentium of at least XMhz + broadband of at least X Mbps was all too common a mess for the user to parse pre-web browser ubiquity). So, win for creative entrepreneurs, at least as long as these new innovations are quickly followed with a third party API.

In the mid term it is hard to see how 2-4 companies attempting their own things and the volume leader being dependent on an ecosystem of hardware makers desperate not to be relegated to just that won't create some of those same DLL hell dynamics that affected the tradeoff, though Google seems to be intent on abating its unintentional contribution to that messy future. Still, with even just two targets across a dozen relevant geographies, we're going to go through a period where large development teams will have to maintain several codebases with relatively different user experiences in order to get the reach. So, win for those with capital and resources and relative loss to the tiny guys modulo the fact that the audience on each platform is large enough to start by just targeting it.

And long term of course, we're likely to see this platform level out like the browser did the web in 2000. It's just too unlikely that a common runtime won't win in the end, once the features that users care about with respect to this wave are settled upon. However, it may not be all roses for startups then either. As Benedict points out, if the platforms have by then fully subsumed app discovery and user acquisition, we may end up looking at a world that looks more like the cable industry or telecom pre smartphone except with a handful of new names at the top.

I personally am thus very excited about the prospects for the short term and startups. After all, the more the landscape shifts the more the furry mammals can scurry about in the hopes of finding higher ground.