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Android's Lessons for New Mobile Operating Systems: Audience

While Android and iOS presently have the smartphone market largely sewn up, other mobile operating systems are in the works or will arise over time. For example, Mozilla is creating Firefox Mobile OS as their entrant into this space.

In this blog post series, I will explore some lessons that I think we can learn from Android’s successes and failures that can help new mobile OSes as they try to break into this space. Today, I’d like to focus on audience.

By “audience” I mean the target market for the mobile OS. This may sound a bit odd, and you might think that the target market for a mobile OS is “everybody”. After all, it’s not like Android or iOS are targeted solely at left-handed Alaskan pipe-welders.

However, it is rare that a new entrant to an established market will be able to pull off that sort of mass-market appeal. Android and iOS defined a new model for smartphones, emphasizing ease of access (e.g., finger-friendly touchscreens), integrated app markets, and the like. This was a fairly substantial departure from the devices that dominated the landscape before, one that “crossed the chasm” into mass-market appeal. However, until and unless a similar massive model change occurs, everyone else is playing in Android’s and iOS’s sandbox. Even mighty Microsoft is having an uphill climb trying to get Windows Phone anywhere near the status that Windows Mobile enjoyed before Android and iOS arrived on the scene. Just because Android succeeded in the mass market does not mean that every other mobile OS will do the same.

New players are better served considering targeting a niche, expanding the niche, attacking adjacent niches, and so on, as a means to establish a beachhead in the marketplace. While a new mobile OS might not be able to offer a substantially improved experience for everyone , it is reasonably likely that it can do so for someone. The makers of that OS simply have to define who “someone” is, know what that someone values that the OS can deliver, and know how to reach that someone.

For example:

  • A mobile OS could say that children, and their parents and/or educators, are the “someone”. The mobile OS might bake in particular capabilities that make it substantially better for that audience, such as separation between the user and the administrator of the device, or OLPC-style on-device app development. The rollout of the mobile OS could emphasize the educational aspects, including getting lots of educational content into its app distribution channels and partnering with educational institutions or organizations (e.g., create a KhanPhone or a TEDTablet). And so on.

  • A mobile OS could say that “netizens” — defined here as Internet-savvy proponents of freedom — are the “someone”. The mobile OS might bake in particular capabilities that make it substantially better for that audience, such as a security model that is tighter than competitors, or built-in cryptographically-secure communications options. The rollout of the mobile OS could emphasize the “freedom” aspects, including working with groups from the Guardian Project to the EFF to ensure that those in need of highly-secure devices know where to turn. Later niches could then include others concerned about security breaches by operators or others, such as enterprises.

Of course, there are other possible “someones” that the mobile OS could target. The key is to choose one and make sure that the mobile OS — and the broader experience around that OS — fit that niche. Having a longer-term plan for a possible chain of niches is nice, but you have to start somewhere. Simply creating what you think is a better mousetrap is not a guarantee that much of the world will beat a path to your door. Android and iOS are reasonable mousetraps for most people — you need to find a place where your mousetrap can be clearly and definitively superior for somebody (though, presumably, not for the mice).

Tomorrow, I will take a look at security, and how another mobile OS can learn from Android’s results to date in this area.

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