Mobility

Mobility: The importance of the "little guys"

What keeps the little guys from gaining a foothold on the mobile market? Jack Wallen examines why this happens and why its an important discussion.

When you think of mobile platforms, only two come to mind: Android and iOS. It makes perfect sense — Between these two platforms, nearly 100% of the world is covered. Yet this fact doesn't stop smaller companies from continuing to develop and deliver mobile platforms.

Take, for instance, BlackBerry — a company that once dominated the smartphone race. They fell out of favor for a very long time, yet continued to plug away (even under the threat of complete insolvency) to create. They do this on the off-chance they will build the platform to bring everyone flooding back and rise to relevance once again. Blackberry has even ditched their iconic physical keyboard in lieu of an all-touch device (all the while suing Typo for producing physical keyboards to attach to Apple and Android devices).

BlackBerry dominance? It could happen. Why not?

Another example — the Ubuntu Phone. Canonical spent a lot of time and budget developing a smartphone platform that would also converge the desktop and mobile experience into one. Most criticized them for taking time away from continuing the desktop push (they are, after all, the Linux distribution with the most promise to deliver Linux on the desktop to the masses). In the end, what Canonical created (Ubuntu Touch) is probably one of the most incredible mobile experiences to date. It really is that good.

And then there's Tizen, WebOS, and Firefox OS. Each of these are legitimate platforms with solid features and performance. Yet, they each suffer to even reach the surface of a heated, roiling sea of competition.

I've spent most of my personal digital age working with, for, and on the underdogs. Back in the mid nineties, I opted to jump the Microsoft ship in favor of Linux. After a year of using an iPhone (and feeling the same "lockdown" I felt with Windows), I attached myself to the underdog Android and never looked back. To this end, the "small guy" holds a special place in my heart. Unfortunately, that "special place" will not help to bring these newcomers (and a Phoenix rising from the ashes) into the spotlight (outside of a glint from the refined metal of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, the iPhone, or the HTC M9).

That's not the way the market works these days. If you're not already entrenched, the likelihood of you gaining any traction in major markets is slim (at best).

But does that mean these smaller players shouldn't close up shop? No. Not even remotely. In fact, the small guys are just as important in this playground as the big guys. Why? Innovation. Both iOS and Android have reached a sort of apex of development. The improvements we are now seeing are little more than refinements on what already exists (minus Lollipop, which most users don't have — even though it was unveiled seven months ago). This means the smaller guys can do the thing the major players cannot — innovate without fear of failure. Canonical can take a chance and completely redefine the mobile user experience. They did and they massively succeeded. Tizen can give a modern mobile experience, all the while keeping the platform entirely open source. BlackBerry can completely re-imagine themselves and find success.

This innovation should light a fire under the seats of the stagnant majority. What Canonical has done for the mobile user experience should turn Apple and Google heads alike. The idea that BlackBerry could make a comeback should have Apple concerned. But the truth is, I believe an arrogance has befallen the major players in the market. They assume no small company can possibly compete in their field.

At one time, Android was nothing more than a blip on Apple's screen. At one point, Apple was little more than a shadow in the shade of Palm. So the rise from obscurity can happen. Of course, in order for that to bear any fruit, the small guys have to release their platform on quality hardware. When the Ubuntu Phone was first released, it came out on mid-spec'd hardware that did nothing to highlight the platform. Shortly after that, it was announced the Ubuntu Phone would finally reach a flagship device (the Meizu MX4) — hardware worthy of the platform. That could be a game changer for Canonical. Adoption of the Ubuntu Phone is now a possibility — because of the right hardware.

That same issue plagues the likes of Tizen and WebOS. A marriage between the various platforms and hardware capable of showing off the capability of the operating systems seems to be a major stumbling factor across the board. To that end, how are these smaller companies going to compete? They aren't. So long as they are relegated to low- to mid-range hardware, no one will want to take a chance on a new platform. However, you place that same platform on flagship hardware and the game has changed.

The little guys are just as important to mobility as the top tier — and in some instances, even more so. But these lesser-known platforms don't stand a chance without manufacturers, carriers, and consumers taking a chance.

Are you willing to take a chance on a platform like the Ubuntu Phone? If not, why? What is the stumbling block for you, as a consumer, to venture beyond Android and iOS?

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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