Developer Aspirations

YAPB - Yet Another Programming Blog



March 2011

The ubiquity of iOS

by Colin Miller, on App, Apple, iOS, iPad, iPad 2, Musings, Ramblings

If I asked you a decade ago what you thought the dominate OS on mobile devices would be, you probably would have thought Palm or maybe Windows. The idea that Apple would rise to domination of the mobile OSes (and devices) wouldn't have really crossed your mind. I mean in 1997 Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple which helped the company avoid bankruptcy. Who knew that a decade later, Apple would surpass Microsoft's valuation.

And while Google has made some attempts to push an open platform for mobile devices with Android, it still has the problems that many open source projects have early in life: lack of polish and ease of use. Android is made for power users, so there are many things that Android can do that Apple's iOS can't. However, those things that iOS does do, it does them better. Combining the ease of use, fast response time in applications, and a self-feeding cycle of popularity breeding developer effort breeding more popularity has made the iOS platform the ubiquitous OS of the mobile world. It's the Windows of hand-held devices.


Apple just keeps pushing their mobile business forward, focusing on it more than their Mac business. It seems to be working for them.

About a year ago I switched from my iPhone 3GS to an HTC Evo. The real reason for this change wasn't that I didn't like the iPhone or that I really wanted the Evo and it's 4G speeds. It was more that my fiancé and I wanted to combine our phone plans and AT&T had terrible phone selections for her, was too expensive, and was too difficult to set up the second line. I've had horrible experiences with Verizon and they're the most expensive anyway, so Sprint seemed the natural fit. After having been using an Android device exclusively for a little over a half of a year, I've started to notice just how much Apple is dominating the area.

If you go to a mall, many stores will now advertise "Get our app in the App Store for additional deals". Advertisements on web pages, billboards, posters, kiosks... they're all for iPhone applications. I've had a meeting where we were discussing setting up a timer to finish the discussion so that we didn't get side tracked. My manager actually said "Finding a timer isn't a problem, we all have iPhones here." And for the most part he was right; most of the members of my team does have iPhones. I have an android and another member uses a blackberry, but most everyone else has an iPhone 4. And it's not that the assumption was that everyone has an iPhone. I think it was more the correlation that having a mobile smart phone just equates to an iPhone now for the most part. It's starting to become assumed.

Microsoft has been trying to get into the tablet market for years. I remember reading articles about Bill Gates stating that it's a huge market. He had grand visions of doctors using windows tablets to do bedside work of patients. This was in the late 90's/early 00's. But it wasn't until Apple had a strong enough following for the iOS with the iPhone and iPod touch that the release of the iPad could truly take hold in the minds of the populous. After people got hooked to the iOS exclusive apps, and those apps became more and more useful and complicated, that the general population could understand how a tablet computer could really be useful. The polish and ease of use were there, along with a backlog of apps from the iPhone that ran natively. It made the jump very appealing because the ecosystem was already in place.

And that ecosystem is what really can make or break a platform. I'm pretty sure if the variety of software that's available on Windows was available on Macs (and if Mac's weren't so expensive), that Windows probably wouldn't dominate as it does now. But that backlog of titles makes most users choose Windows. Developers will develop apps that work on Windows because that's where all of the users are. The cycle is self feeding, and it's the same cycle that's happening in the mobile marketplace; only this time for iOS instead of Windows.

With the iPad and iPad 2, Apple has added an additional blow that they've never really been able to manage in the past. Their devices might be well made, the OS a pleasure, but usually competing devices were cheaper. If your choice is between a $2000 Macbook Pro or a $1000 Windows Laptop, most people will choose the Windows machine. With the iPad though, Apple is actually cheaper than its competitors. It is also more polished and has a larger application selection. Having the price point going for them along with the ubiquity of iOS means that the tablet market is essentially theirs. There may be a few people getting Android tablets, but that will mostly be power users who want specific features and are already Android fans. Most people will just pick up an iPad and call it a day.

My main concern with all of this is similar to my concern with Windows dominating the PC market. Namely the lack of choice that happens when a vendor gets near complete control of a market. It's probably even more worrisome with Apple due to their push on the App Store. Never before has a computing platform had a single point of censorship and a required retailer. For Windows applications, people could buy them from a store or from the developer directly. With iOS, Apple gets a 30% cut of all software. Also Apple has to approve all apps, which  means as a private entity they have the ability to censor developers works. A really closed system that may someday come back to bite users in the ass.

Still, at this point in time there's no real appealing alternative. All of the good applications are for iOS devices and Android tablets are still expensive and incomplete. Apple is heading quickly towards monopolizing the largest growing technology industry (mobile) and even the powerhouses at Microsoft and Google can only manage to put up weak speed bumps. And yes, even knowing this I'm still going to drop by an Apple store to try to pick up an iPad 2 on Saturday.

As I already said, there's no better options. And the app I need most is only on iOS.

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