We Need to Break the Mobile Duopoly. We Need a 3rd Mobile OS

Peter Levine

We already know that there are two dominant mobile operating systems out there. But the current situation doesn’t really allow anyone to experiment, not without going through the interests and lenses of the two dominant players — Apple and Google.

That’s why we need a third mobile OS to break this duopoly and move us towards a more open environment for anyone to innovate, without permission. Especially as mobile phones have begun to democratize and broaden the reach of technology around the world… why shouldn’t we then also democratize the mobile operating system?

Besides resulting in improved discoverability, greater ability to connect with users, and more geographic reach, a more open environment for mobile innovation gives users around the world choice. Here’s how:

For OEMs/handset makers, choice means the ability to do more with software, which is how device makers can differentiate themselves as hardware becomes commoditized. But most hardware makers aren’t good at software. By partnering with a truly open operating system — as opposed to a locked-down ecosystem — device makers begin to capture more value, and share revenue in places they haven’t been able to play before: app stores, mobile services, advertising, and other ways to monetize on phones.

True, hardware revenue is at a totally different scale than apps. But it’s not impossible that one or more of these OEMs could become a meaningful player in some other part of the mobile ecosystem over time. Especially as other factors align in the future.

For 3rd party apps/services, choice means the ability to build better apps and services and forge deeper bonds with users. If 3rd party app developers want to improve discovery, they need to be able to innovate outside of the parameters set by the two dominant players. They need to create more deeply integrated experiences that stand out from those default, preloaded apps. A more open ecosystem enables developers to get closer to the “metal” and create new (and potentially great) experiences above and beyond an app downloaded from the app store.

Think about the type of deep integration that Apple-owned Siri has on iPhones, or Google-owned Gmail has on stock Android phones, for instance. Those apps operate much more contextually and fluidly, and far more powerfully, on those phones than 3rd-party apps downloaded from an app store would. An open, leading OS contender however would empower the best 3rd party developers — through special APIs and tools that better integrate with the operating system — to do more than what they’re currently allowed to in a closed ecosystem (where they have limited, if any, tools and access to communicate with other apps).

For end users, choice means experiences they would not otherwise get in the current ecosystem. If device makers are able to innovate in a more open system — without being handcuffed to existing distribution agreements — then they can give users what they want. This could be the ability to customize boot animations and default apps, to the ability to customize the app experience itself. While some users may not care to customize their mobile experience at all, the point is that users at least have a choice. (And let’s face it, many users don’t know what they “want” until they see it, since many new technology options often change behaviors in unexpected ways.)

This is about much more than choosing pretty animations, however. It’s about the freedom and ability to completely rethink the user interface from the ground up. You’ve heard the widely heard statistic that five billion people are expected to use mobile phones within just a few years. Why should the next two billion smartphones coming online around the world be stuck in a worldview solely “designed in California”?

Let’s not underestimate the number of local services that are already popular in specific geographies and markets, either. Apple and Google services are not necessarily the most popular services in parts of Asia, Latin America, and so on.

But as long as we have only two dominant platforms, we limit the innovation possible — both on and with smartphones — around the entire world. There’s just not a lot of room for experimentation.

The implications of a third, leading mobile OS therefore go beyond just Apple or Google or the players in the open Android space, all of whom (including Cyanogen, which we have invested in) are taking very distinct approaches to what they can do here. By enabling a third mobile OS, we make entirely new forms of mobile innovation possible, including the ability to: Build locally influenced interfaces. Design for unfamiliar or entirely new use cases not envisioned by our power- and connectivity-rich use of mobile phones. Create entirely new app and service designs, including perhaps a more meritocratic discovery process. And so on.

We really don’t know what will or even can happen here yet. We’re just laying the groundwork now.

Want more a16z?

Sign up to get the best of a16z content, news, and investments.

Thanks for signing up for the a16z newsletter.

Check your inbox for a welcome note.

MANAGE MY SUBSCRIPTIONS By clicking the Subscribe button, you agree to the Privacy Policy.
go to top