Open ... and Shut It's become a truism that the way to win in mobile is with an end-to-end, hardware-to-software-to-cloud strategy. I just wish this were as good for consumers as it seems to be for vendors. If I could get any wish fulfilled for 2013, it would be to have Apple and Google, in particular, go back to doing what they do best - rather than doing "all the things" in an attempt to squeeze out maximum value from a captive consumer.
It's not surprising that there has been a rush to integrate everything in these still early days of mobile computing. As Clayton Christensen called out in The Innovator's Dilemma, integration is essential to winning in a nascent market, because customers gravitate to solutions that bake out unnecessary complexity.
The problem for Apple and others, however, is that we're likely moving beyond the point when we need an end-to-end crutch, particularly given how poor the dominant vendors are at different areas of the mobile "stack".
Apple, for example, does hardware exceptionally well but continues to stumble on cloud services and even its software is not very good, as John Battelle and Nicholas Carson have both pointed out. Apple's terrible Maps app is just one example of style over substance, and an innate inability to put big data to use.
Google? Its cloud services are absolutely magical. If you've used its voice services on Android, or if you've witnessed how effortlessly it seems to pull up the right information at the right time (in maps, search, whatever), you've seen Google at its best. But Google hasn't been content to crunch data behind the scenes, and so keeps releasing the Android operating system that is popular but not nearly as good as Apple's iOS, and its phones/tablets that are not as good as Apple's hardware.
Then there are Facebook and Amazon which, as The Wall Street Journal reports, are also getting into the game, trying to add their own hardware or search to compete with Apple and Google.
If only these companies were as good at being each other as they are at being themselves. But they're not. Apple is a terrible Google, which is a terrible Amazon, which is a terrible Apple.
I wish Apple would go back to its roots, creating beautiful hardware and some entertainment-oriented productivity apps. I wish Google would just fixate on data. I wish Amazon kept selling everything better/faster/cheaper, including compute capacity. And that's all. I wish they'd stop trying to be something they're not.
I know the end-to-end experience is what these big vendors are aiming for. The problem is that none of them are very good at it.
As Christensen highlighted in an interview with Asymco's Horace Dediu, we may be nearing the time when modularity, not integration, will be the winning strategy in mobile, just as it was in desktop computing:
The transition from proprietary architecture to open modular architecture just happens over and over again. It happened in the personal computer. Although it didn’t kill Apple’s computer business, it relegated Apple to the status of a minor player. The iPod is a proprietary integrated product, although that is becoming quite modular. You can download your music from Amazon as easily as you can from iTunes. You also see modularity organized around the Android operating system that is growing much faster than the iPhone. So I worry that modularity will do its work on Apple.
I don't share this worry. I just worry that it won't happen soon. The day that Apple let Google Maps back onto the iPhone as a first-class citizen was a great day for me and many others. It was a day that let me have Apple for my hardware and overall mobile experience, with Google filling in the data services that enrich that experience, and Amazon running the back-end services for many of the apps that I use.
The integration movement in mobile served its purpose. I just hope that instinct to integrate the mobile experience, end-to-end, is dead as we move into 2013. I suspect it's wishful thinking on my part, but one can dream. ®
Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.