There’s only going to be two winners in mobile OS

Jack Welch had a famous rule that GE would only be in businesses where they can be number one or number two.  In the industrial businesses GE was in, the scale that biggest players could achieve gave cost advantages that allowed for much higher profitability than the smaller players could achieve.  Software is a world away from GE’s businesses but for platforms and operating systems, the number one or number two rule applies but for very different reasons.  Operating systems with small share can not attract the third party developers needed to make the platform successful.

The personal computer era showed how minor platforms do not make it.  Windows dominated the landscape for two decades with the Macintosh being the only viable competitor.  Many others came and went like OS/2 and BeOS.  NeXT which would later show itself to have the right attributes to be successful didn’t perform well in the market till Apple bought it and transformed it into OS X.

Android and iOS already have huge leads as application platforms.  One of them could stumble but with the momentum both have, this looks unlikely.   Even though the spoils are likely to be meager, there are several competitors for third place:  Blackberry OS, WebOS (Palm/HP), and Windows Phone 7.  Nokia had the good sense to take Symbian out of the race but made the peculiar choice of of Windows Phone 7.  Both RIM (Blackberry) and Nokia would be be better off switching to Android as it would would put them on a platform where there’s already a wealth of third party apps.  Neither RIM nor Nokia has ever proven themselves to be world class at mobile software.   RIM’s entire success was based on email and they could salvage their market position by bringing their email system to Android.

These kind of strategic mistakes always puzzle me.  I wonder if RIM, HP, Nokia and Microsoft have all convinced themselves they can become number two or if they believe there’s a profitable path as number 3 or 4.