Normally I think Andreas Constantinou is one of the smartest guys in mobile computing today. He knows the business inside out. His latest post, though, has me wondering: The Wintel future for mobile: a wakeup call for network operators hits on about seven of eight cylinders for me.
The premise of the article actually belies the title. Andreas is not saying that Intel (or MS, for heaven’s sake) plan to dominate the mobile world. Rather, he predicts that Android, along with Qualcomm’s parallel chipsets (and those from Mediatek to some extent, though I think TI might be a contender as well), is providing the same kind of disruptive force in the mobile marketplace that the Windows/x86 combination did in the 1980s for desktop computing. He states that this should be a wakeup call for network operators, who currently control 70% of the money surrounding mobile computing as a whole.
I certainly agree that the current state of affairs for the cellular business worldwide should indeed be a wakeup call for network operators, and frankly I am just loving the sight of these huge corporations starting to topple—I think that both developers and end users can only benefit from this. However, in my mind this sea change is not necessarily because of a Wintel-like disruptive influence, though that is there.
The issue is that these network operators who have controlled the game up to this point by charging for minutes and kilobytes are now seeing their service become obsolete. I propose that this is due as much to the disruptive influence of the iPhone as to the staggering innovations in hardware and software—the important difference is in the business model and in the expectations of the end consumer, not advances in technology. Technology has always changed fast and in disruptive ways, and will continue to do so. For mobile right now, it is the changes in business models which are disrupting the old guard, and which will eventually dismantle it in much the same way that GNU software upended the previously highly-profitable development tools business, in the same way that blade servers and server farms took down massive centralized servers, and in the same way that cheap cluster computing thoroughly dismantled the supercomputer industry. The consumers of those products found better, cheaper ways to get what they needed, despite any changes in the technology. Heck, clusters were originally built with used parts, optimizing for both cost and performance despite advances in technology.
It is not hardware or software that drives these trends, but rather the market’s insistence—and by that I mean the insistence of actual human beings in the marketplace—on being treated fairly, for two reasons: (1) they recognize that alternatives are possible; and (2) they either source those alternatives, or supply them. If it weren’t Android and Qualcomm this year, next year it might be MeeGo and… who knows, maybe homebuilt phones with Beagle Boards or Gumstix. Pandora’s box continues to provide disruptive tech, and that provides opportunities, but it requires humans to take advantage of those opportunities.
PS. Andreas still is the smartest guy in mobile. 🙂