Slouching towards the dark ages of business software?

A recent article appearing on the Forbes online magazine web site (Google Buys Motorola Mobility…And So Begins The Dark Ages) suggests that Google’s gobbling of Motorola Mobility is one more sign that the Microsoft Empire, which has so dominated client computing over the past 20 years, is disintegrating. The “Pax Microsoft” is being done in by barbarians who are aligning their mobile software and hardware strategies to create competing camps with devices and applications that are incompatible. Instead of managing a monolithic device infrastructure dominated by one operating system (Windows), businesses will need to contend with a range that includes Android, iOS, RIM and Symbian, which account for nearly 90% of the mobility market (although that market makeup is also shifting with incredible speed). According to the view put forward by the Forbes article, this will be bad for businesses who rely on software for their operations, and it will be bad for software innovation.

The article argues that although Google claims to be only interested in Motorola’s patent portfolio, it is just a matter of time before they start favoring Motorola devices over all others. This argument ignores that fact that Google’s highly profitable business is based on ad revenue, not hardware and software sales (indeed, the Android operating system software is free). One might further question why Google would shift its attention from its highly profitable ad revenue (which is made possible by Android being on as many different mobile devices from as many different phone manufacturers as possible) to very low margin phone sales. Given Google’s relentless focus on profits, they are not likely to make that kind of trade. In fact, there is considerable incentive for them to keep their new hardware business completely separate from their search and advertising business (at least that’s the theory).

However setting that question aside, is the larger point of the article valid? Will having multiple competing mobile operating systems and devices herald a new “dark ages” for business software development?

Short version? Nope.

The FUD here is that the cost of supporting four or more operating systems will be so expensive that companies will either standardize around one (which risks making them incompatible with their partners or tying their fortunes to technology that could become obsolete), or they will need to support apps across a range of operating systems and be forced to limit their new software investments to small, low-function applications. Either way, innovation is stifled.
This would seem to be a logical conclusion. However it is based on the assumption that the cost of software development remains the same, and building an application to run on four different devices is four times more expensive than building it once. That, however, is not the case. New enterprise application development platforms (like the Sybase Unwired Platform, or SUP) are simplifying mobile application development. By delivering a standards based framework for creating mobile enterprise applications, platforms such as SUP make it easier and less expensive to build rich applications with a native look and feel, while tapping in to the vast ecosystem of web development talent, and at the same time breathe new life into existing server-based business applications. The fact is, the cost of building applications and managing complex device environments is dropping fast, which is one reason there is so much demand for business mobility these days.

It’s hard to predict the future, but here’s another way to look at recent trends in mobility: breaking the Microsoft virtual monopoly on client business systems could be a huge breath of fresh air for the industry.

Frankly, the flood of mobile devices and applications that are coming into the work place, and the efficiencies they are providing to business operations, is looking more like the start of a new golden age rather than an entire industry slouching toward the dark ages. To be successful in this new age, businesses need to adopt a mobility strategy that is device agnostic. Devices are commodities, software is what makes them useful (I mean, nobody buys an iPhone just to make phone calls, right?). Businesses should focus on a mobility strategy that enables them to build software they can easily port to whatever device is most suitable to the task at hand (or if nothing else, the latest shiny object). That way they can take full advantage of the latest commodity hardware while investing in deeper software functionality.

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