Mobile and desktop/laptop platforms are increasingly fragmented

In my early years of engagement with technology in the 1980’s, there were quite a few platforms available. A wide variety of operating systems and hardware providers battled for prominence in the marketplace. If you’re of a certain age, you may smile or cringe as you think back to names like Commodore 64, Apple II, Macintosh, TRS-80, Tandy 1000, IBM PC Jr., and Amiga. And that’s just a few of the more consumer-friendly offerings then in the marketplace!

Software Platform Detente

We then went through a period of time where Microsoft Windows largely dominated, with the Apple Mac environment a distant second. Much as the Cold War established a certain balance of power that lent a measure of stability to world affairs — despite regular conflicts – this streamlined marketplace made development decisions much easier for software companies.

The Return of Fragmentation

Today, however, the market is again becoming fragmented. The rise of smart phones and other portable devices is placing increasing pressure on the incumbents. Instead of being in a position where developers would need to create for two platforms (Microsoft and Apple) to reach most of the marketplace, they now find themselves staring at a significant number of viable platforms.

Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS/X still play a dominant role in the desktop and laptop arena, but Blackberry, iPad, iPhone, and Android options are taking on increasing significance . Add to that the rising use of “cloud” solutions for traditional applications as well as other minor or as-yet-to-be-released platforms, and it is easy to see that this can be a daunting proposition.

And the facts clearly demonstrate that developers are with this platform proliferation. I personally use a significant number of these platforms on a daily basis – yes, I’m a bit unusual, but it does give me a bird’s eye view of this current challenge. On most days I will use all of the following for a variety of needs: Windows 7, Apple OS/X, iPad, iPhone, and Android.

What Evernote and the Weather Channel Show Us

Two applications that I use frequently across these platforms are Evernote and the Weather Channel. Both of these show quite clearly that keeping up with the demands of multi-platform development is not easy. When compared side-by-side the same application on each platform has a significantly different feature set and look-and-feel. Some of this is necessarily dictated by hardware requirements – what one can display on an iPhone screen isn’t the same as on a 24 inch desktop monitor. But much of it has nothing to do with those hardware restrictions.

Rather, it seems likely that these products – and countless others like them – rely on different development teams working on different schedules to execute on the creation. This results in a wildly uneven and unpredictable user experience. I find myself frequently frustrated by the lack of intuitiveness as I move from platform to platform. But I also find it maddening that a feature I value and depend on in one platform is inexplicably unavailable on another.

For example, Evernote displays notes in a list format on the desktop and Android versions, but not on the iPad. Since I often use Evernote for a to do list, that makes the iPad much less useful – and it’s the device I usually pull out in meetings to guide the agenda! If I try to use the web interface for Evernote on my iPad, it forces me over into the iPad app itself, thus eliminating a potential workaround for me. And while the Android version of Evernote gives me my preferred list format, it also makes it impossible to browse through my tags and folders and instead requires me to execute keyword searches which is much more cumbersome.

With all the travel that I do, I use the Weather Channel application a lot – especially during these summer months when thunderstorms are a common occurrence and I find it useful in figuring out if my flight is likely to be delayed or if I need to tote an umbrella to an appointment. In general, the web and smart phone TWC apps are useful but they, too, have a dramatically different look-and-feel. The Android version seems to be the worst of the bunch with an interface that frequently misinterprets gestures and switches the forecast target. In addition, the speed of the apps on the different platforms varies widely and does not seem to reflect the speed of the network on which the app is actively connected.

This challenge is not limited to Evernote and the Weather Channel, nor is it a new thing, it is just magnified by the rising acceptance of more platforms. Anyone who has used Outlook and Entourage on Windows and Mac, respectively, for email can tell you that the same core offering can end up very different when applied to different operating systems.

Changing Marketplace Equals Increased Confusion

The difference is that in the past most people did not move between Microsoft and Apple on a regular basis. Today, however, many users may use Windows at work, a Mac at home, and have a Blackberry and either an iPhone or an Android device. Throw in the millions of people who now have an iPad and you see the problem. These folks, like me, will find it confusing to have these differing product experiences – and it will generally reflect back on the brand itself and not on the underlying platform.

The Developer’s Dilemma

It seems unlikely that any of these platforms are likely to go away anytime soon. If anything, we might expect to see more variations that need to be accounted for in the near term. This leaves software companies and developers in a position where they need to make choices – all of which have pros and cons.

  1. Bet on a limited number of platforms. While this is the least common approach that I see in the market today, it is certainly a viable one for some companies. Developers routinely followed this path over the past 20 years or so – usually putting all their eggs in Microsoft’s basket because of its compelling market share. But there are providers today who still take this approach – companies like Omni Group that develops great applications but only for the Mac environment jump immediately to mind. Ultimately, being all things to all people may not be a good choice if it means everyone gets a lesser experience. Figuring out the target market for an application and understanding where those users will likely want to use it can help with targeting.
  2. Increase cross-platform coordination. For companies that use different development teams for each platform, it is important to have strong coordination among them. Everything from product roadmap to consistent look-and-feel should come under the microscope here. While it is important to respect the limitations and embrace the advantages of each platform, it is essential to provide the greatest degree of uniformity possible.
  3. Invest additional resources. The marketplace increasingly demands frequent product advances. It is no longer sufficient to roll out enhancements every year or two. To feed the beast that is composed of consumers, media, analysts, and investors, it is vital to keep up a strong pace of development. For many companies, this may require the investment of additional resources – either internal or external – to continue moving forward. Maintaining cross-platform compatibility should not come at the expense of ongoing innovation.
  4. Narrow the product focus. Providing an excellent user experience may be possible using the existing development team and resources simply by constraining the scope of the offering. There’s often a temptation for developers to turn their products into a “total solution” – whatever that is. Frequently, this leads to a meandering focus that distracts from the unique selling proposition. By following the lead of developers like 37 Signals, a company can potentially deliver what users need on a wide variety of platforms with a reasonable budget.

No Silver Bullet, but Careful Consideration Required

No single answer will resolve the perils of platform proliferation for all developers — and indeed choices can be very good for consumers. Rather, it is important to be aware of the challenges and to establish a thoughtful approach to the evolving marketplace. Chasing after every shiny new object may not be the right answer, just as putting on the blinders and ignoring external innovation will likely lead to more heartburn than success.