I’m going to start with the punchline, before I retrace the backstory that leads to it:
Facebook sells us Facebook, Microsoft sells us Windows, Apple sells us Widgets, and Google sells us.
Back in the day, Microsoft was so powerful, that their solution to the threat of the Internet, was to try to beat it with their own Windows-only Internet Equivalent. The bid was not successful; the World Wide Web won. The idea of trying to beat the Internet actually seems quite humorous in hindsight. Yet Microsoft’s vision of the future continued to be Windows-centric for many more years: they repeated a similar strategy in the Browser Wars by integrated Internet Explorer into the Windows OS. It was not until the courts interceded that Microsoft began attempting other strategies for retaining market share in the ever-changing computational market. But we all see more clearly in the rearview mirror of life than through the windshield. This is why the roads that led up to today’s Platform Wars were not straight and clear.
Today the Platform Wars are no longer focussed on Windows versus Mac, though Microsoft and Apple are still key players. Its now less about desktop OS share, and more about integrated platforms for a long list of functions:
media sales, rental and streaming
web TV solutions
integration between user devices
streaming between user devices
integration of user data
There have been several competitors in this area over the years, but many were too focussed on one area of specialty, and missed the larger platform opportunity. Yahoo would be a perfect example: they started out more broadly-based than Google, but their smaller advertising revenue, and lack of drive to expand (which may well have been caused by their lower revenues) has put them out of the contest as a viable, full featured platform today.
There are really four credible competitors in the current platform war: Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft; and the history and composition of each helps define the differing approaches they take going for the brass ring of User Platform Ownership.
Microsoft stands as the historic monopoly in desktop OS and office software; in fact, if you spell office with a capital “O” you are treading dangerously close to one of their trademarks. While Microsoft expended huge amounts in seeking further markets, few of them were successful. Gaming was one where their large investments were effective, in terms of a continued market share, even if the profits were late and low. Gaming is also Microsoft’s largest hardware category, and it leads today to a new battleground: TV. Back office software (this also may be a trademark when spelled with caps) was another Microsoft success; a logical extension for a business software and operating system company. Mobile was not a big winner for Microsoft; though they fielded products continuously in this area, nicknames for their mobile software such as “Window for Washing Machines” indicate the type of experience it provided to users. Their newest mobile OS is much improved, but is not getting any traction in the now mature and competitive market. Network sales and services from Microsoft continued for many years to be based on leveraging their large Windows user base, not on producing products so desirable that they transcended the OS issues. Recently Microsoft relented and began developing software for Apple’s iOS mobile devices. But even here, their integrated apps for the iPhone and iPad only integrate with Windows computers, not Mac computers.
Google, like Microsoft, was born in the software field, but the web software field, and much more recently, thus profiting from a start-up mentality, rather than a monopolistic one. Ad revenues have always been Google’s key profit center, and the lack of income diversity is perhaps the web giant’s biggest potential weakness. They are still counting on one breadwinner, as they attempt to fund many fronts of expansion. Web Apps of various types are Google’s must successful expansion area, plus Android, their mobile device platform. Their move into hardware began late, with the acquisition, not yet completed, of Motorola Mobility. This is a difficult situation for Google, as MotoMo is a direct competitor to Google’s key allies who use the Android OS.
Facebook, like Google, is more recent, and web-centric, with a startup mentality. It has few hardware aspirations, instead hoping to absorb more and more of the user’s web experience inside of Facebook. To that end Facebook no longer just connects you to your friends with wall comments, photos, likes and links, it now allows instant messaging, video conferencing, interactive gaming, a host of in app-apps, and a playpen strategy which means that clicking a web link from Facebook does not take you out of Facebook to an independent browser, instead it shows the content within a Facebook frame, and when you are done, returns you directly to Facebook.
Apple’s history has always been integrated hardware and software; their own platform. This was problematic in the PC Wars of another millennium, but has proven very effective in the Platform Wars of today. Apple has been roundly criticized for its “Walled Garden” approach to mobile computing, but as times change, it is showing itself to be a viable strategy today. Apple’s income more recently has based on the sales of highly desirable hardware products, plus a cut in media sales of music, and to a lesser degree books, movies, and TV shows. And finally the sale of software, with mobile software (iOS Apps) being the biggest winner.
So, based on the history above, what are the current situations of the Big Four?
Apple sells desirable new devices, provides much of the web and integration functions for free, and makes its continuing revenues on media and App sales. Users are comfortable with this model, if they can live with the “Walled Garden”, and it is in Apple’s best interests to keep user information confidential, not provide it to third parties who develop apps, write publications etc. Users can gain much of the convenience of the Apple Platform without moving to an Apple-only workflow, but the temptation of more elegant Apple devices, and increased convenience keeps increasing many user’s commitment over time. The mark of Apple winning the Platform Wars would be that nearly all the devices you see are Apple devices.
Google makes its money on advertising, so getting users signed up to their recent social app, Google+ is the hub of their platform strategy. If it works, it will edge out Facebook in the process. It is desktop hardware agnostic, since Google does not develop desktop OSes, and only a modest number of desktop apps, instead focussing on web OSes, web apps, web sales, and web integration. Since Google is not making their money on hardware devices or media sales, they make their money on targeted advertising. Their definition of targeted marketing is ever-growing, and the increased gathering and expanded use of their private info is a matter of concern for many users. If Apple sells us gizmos, Google sells us. The mark of Google winning the platform wars would be everyone using Gmail, Google+, Android, and the other Google OSes and Apps.
Facebook bases their platform strategy entirely on Facebook usage. Direct competition against their social network has not been successful over the years. Targeted advertising is critical to Facebook, as to Google, but within the Facebook Garden, where it somehow seems less offensive to users. New threats have arisen to Facebook’s dominance of the social media field, from Google+, and now from Pinterest, a social network with a twist, which is only just beginning to see the success that could allow it to either integrate, or compete, with Facebook. So, in a phrase, Facebook sells Social Entertainment and Social Communication, but mostly they sell Facebook. The mark of Facebook winning the Platform Wars would be everyone signing onto Facebook whenever they went on line with any device, and spending their internet time within the Facebook Platform
Microsoft depends still on a mixed hardware, software, webware integration strategy, but only really reaches those who are willing to use Windows OS devices. Other components of their platform depend on that for optimal integration. Microsoft is forever awaiting their next savior, be it Windows 8 Tablets, or Nokia Windows OS phones. So, one could say that Microsoft sells Windows. The mark of Microsoft winning the Platform wars would be Windows OSes on all our devices.
Worded this way, its clear that none of the competitors will be likely to field a total victory in the near future, and that such a win would not be to the benefit of the competitive market. It is still possible to own a Windows computer, and an Apple iPhone, and utilize many of the conveniences of each, while still conducting Google searches and visiting Facebook. But over time, with the choice of a tablet, of a cloud storage system, a TV streaming system, and other solutions, a user will tend to migrate towards one platform or another.
(Providing appropriate links for this article would have taken as long as writing the article, so I leave it to the reader to hone their search engine skills on any areas where they need further information. Just keep in mind that your search engine choice is a component of your platform decisions…)