Department of Obscure References
I found this posting on Tech Crunch interesting, as it highlights one aspect of a decoupled mobile platform architecture: managing OS updates.
The chart nicely illustrates the difference between the Android and iOS device platforms. Apple regularly updates their iPhone devices with current versions of their iOS operating system. Google? Not so much. In fact, the chart shows that some Android-based mobile devices ship with out-of-date versions of Android from the date of introduction.
You can imagine the company reactions.
Google: "Hey, what do you want? We just make the OS and ship it."
HTC/Samsung/Motorola et al: "Hey, we just take the latest OS release, put it on the device, and ship it."
Verizon/Sprint/AT&T et al: "We don't know how to keep devices current."
I'm not going to weigh in on whether Apple or Google's strategy is better (and for whom). But the situation does illustrate the choices you face as a device maker, OS provider, and mobile carrier. If you're Apple, you've built a company that obsesses over every detail of a customer's experience with your product. So naturally you're going to control both the hardware platform and the OS that drives it. And you're going to spend more than a little time checking out the applications that other people are developing for your product, but that's another topic for another time. If you're Google, your model is quite different. You're trying to build share as quickly as possible, so you're going to give away the OS (subject to patent infringement limitations), kick-start the third-party applications community, and get your OS on as many smartphones as possible. Since you're Google, you're going to bring out a new OS version every quarter (although the release schedule is anything but smooth, with six months between some releases and one month between other releases). And since you're not in the hardware business, the need to test OS versions on a variety of current and recent devices is Someone Else's Problem. If you're the mobile carrier, you may or may not care... but you're ill-equipped to manage this kind of hardware-software lineup.
When I worked at iPass, in order to aggregate and resell what we called "Mobile Data" services, we had to supply the 3G modem card along with the other bits that made up the service. Suddenly, we were a hardware as well as a software company. We had to manage inventories of modem cards... different cards for different mobile data networks, with different device and OS dependencies. And this was our problem, because the mobile carriers were unable to manage it. A mobile carrier might take six months or more to qualify a particular device, train its Sales and Support teams, and roll out the service. In an Android type of world, this means the service would launch with an OS one or more releases behind the current version. So we managed the lineup of OS releases and target devices, and in some cases provided the OS update function on behalf of the mobile carrier.
So what does this mean if you're Research in Motion, trying to maintain relevance in what people want to tag as a two-horse race between Apple and Google? It means you can add value by 1) ensuring everyone knows what versions of OS work with what devices, and 2) making sure that you provide OS updates. This doesn't put you ahead of Apple, but it does put you in a better position vs. Google. Google would have a hard time keeping OS versions and devices straight, even if it wanted to do so (and it doesn't). Apple will do this because they're Apple, so RIM has to find other ways to compete against them.
Some people would respond that keeping the OS on a device up to date doesn't matter, and they're right--until it does matter. It's a bit like saying that insurance doesn't matter. As a consumer, you want the device--including the applications you've downloaded onto the device--to just work. You don't care how or why, just that everything works. And if you're RIM, you're in the best position to make sure this happens. And that's good for your customers, and good for you.