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Tech Platform Wars, 2010: Devices Rule

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One of the pivotal changes that occurred over the past ten years was that technology developed to the point where we no longer need to be shackled to a desktop PC to do our day’s work.

A decade ago, thanks to the dominance of the desktop PC, when we thought of the word “platform” we thought of Windows. Now the OS platform is only a conduit to a greater platform – the Internet.

This means that consumers and enterprise alike are exposed to an increasing number of diverse devices and platforms.

Welcome to 2010, the year of the platform wars.

The year 2010 might be nothing like Arthur C. Clarke envisioned, but the technology that surrounds us is still very cool and light years ahead of what was cutting edge at the end of the millennium. We now have in our daily lives technology that we wouldn’t have been able to dream of ten years ago.

Our tech dreams have not only come true, but been bettered. We have vast amounts of power and storage at our disposal on the desktop. We have access to a wide array of portable devices that not only allow us to seamlessly access the web when on the move, but also allow us to do more and more when away from the desk. Electronics companies have embraced newer, smaller, more powerful, and cheaper components.

Our addiction to the desktop is over.

This is bad news for Microsoft, which relied on us being tied to Window and an imposed upgrade cycle. As we access the Web using netbooks, cell phones, games consoles, handheld computers and GPS devices, fewer and fewer of these devices are powered by Windows. (And when it came to netbook, Microsoft initially foisted the aging XP onto users because the newer Vista wouldn’t run on the diminutive gadget).

Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch were instrumental in making the mainstream user aware of alternative platforms. But it’s equally important to note that Apple wasn’t the first.

When the iPhone hit the cellphone market, other manufacturers scrambled to increase their offerings in order to remain relevant. Touchscreens, plenty of storage, gaming capability and app stores are now common place.

We’ve also seen a new kid on the block make an appearance – Android. While Android is still at that stage of being primarily a geek plaything, it’s got potential to go big.

But we shouldn’t just think of operating systems as platforms. Increasingly web browsers are platforms by themselves, and it’s an area that’s seen tremendous stimulation over the past few years.

Thanks to Mozilla’s drive to make Firefox a fast and secure browser, other browser developers (Microsoft in particular) have had to raise their game. It’s amazing to think that in five years Firefox could grab 25 per cent of usage share (as measured by Net Applications). Then there’s Google’s Chrome browser, which became the third most used browser – in a little over a year after it was launched.

Things are changing, and changing fast.

So, why will 2010 be the year of the platform wars? Because if you think you’ve seen change already, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

This year we’re going to see some real game changers, like Apple’s tablet (unless that turns out to be a digital unicorn that existed only in the minds of tech pundits). The tablet is likely to be, if nothing else, a different approach. Then there’s Google’s Chrome OS and associated devices, which will be a different take on how people interact with the web and create and store data.

Like them or loathe them, these two devices are going to have a profound effect on both those using technology, and companies who make the gadgets that we use. Rather than being standalone devices, companies have realized that what consumers want is a platform.

So not only do they want a device, and have that device integrate with the rest of their electronic ecosystem, they want to be able to buy software and services to augment their device. On top of all that, the device has to carry out the functions of multiple devices, and increasingly it has to be good at these functions. Vanity functions rightly attract the wrath of users and the device is doomed.

The effect of big game changers like Apple’s Tablet and Google’s Chrome OS devices (and, we’re also likely to see an iPhone refresh too, along with an OS update) is that there’s a ripple down to other, smaller vendors. Even if you never buy or touch a Mac tablet or Chrome OS device, the devices that you do buy and use will, in some way, be influenced by these devices.

For example, as much as the Android community might not want to admit it, Android as it is today is different (and better) because if Apple’s work on the iPhone. (Think about the whole “Windows copies Mac/Mac copies Windows” nonsense; the bottom line is that technology influences technology).

So, what is 2010 going to bring? It’s going to bring us more capable platforms, more app stores, more choice and a greater ability to do more work when away from our desktops. And move away from desktops we will.

PCs are seeing a sales boost right now, thanks to the improving economy and the release of Windows 7. But the overall trend over the next year will be toward devices that are more portable.

The year 2010 is also going to be when Microsoft starts to feel the pressure to deliver a platform that unifies the desktop and mobile computing across a range of devices. Unlike Apple, Microsoft still expects Windows Mobile users to make do with a second-rate browser (and that’s putting it kindly). Apart from screen size, the difference between a desktop web experience and one we get when on the move should be minimal.

Bring on the platform wars! It’s going to be fun!

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