Software is a funny thing. How important is it?
Apple has just announced it’s giving most of its away for free — effectively costing it some $900 million in the short term. Samsung has just convened its first developer conference in the hope of persuading more people to write software for its devices. Microsoft, known for its Office and Windows software, has just bought a phone manufacturer — Nokia — and promises a new raft of its lacklustre Surface tablets. Google, known for the money it makes off its software, has promised more Glasses, and owns a cellphone maker, Motorola. Amazon, which sells stuff, also makes tablets and e-readers, and is rumoured to be getting into a phone.
What companies are increasingly recognising is that software is everything but not on its own. To succeed in this new world of ubiquitous devices, you need to own as much as possible of what is loosely referred to as the ecosystem. That means hardware, software, and the services that make both hardware and software come to life.
Think a phone where you can take videos, edit them into a short movie at literally the push of a button, and then share them with friends with another push. Or a tablet that lets you and control see your company’s inventory or fleet of trucks in real time.
But this isn’t easy. It requires expertise in very different areas — areas that until recently were regarded as best considered separate industries. Focus on what you’re good at, the mantra used to be. Now, it’s more like: you’ve got to be good at all these things, or you’ll die. Think HTC, which makes great devices but hasn’t succeeded in building the software and services that makes those devices stand out.
Some companies can be good at all three, but it’s a fast-moving game. Think BlackBerry, which was good at both hardware, software and services for a while, with its email service, its own operating system and its keyboard-bound devices. But the world moved on, and BlackBerry didn’t move quickly enough.
So now it looks like Apple is heading the pack. But it too, is vulnerable. The world has been captivated by the phones and tablets it creates, but some detect a sense the company, without Steve Jobs, quite understanding where to go next. It’s likely to be an Apple TV, which should be interesting.
Samsung is late to the game, dangerously so. It dominates the world of phones, but has been slow to build software and services to bridge those devices to its other products — computers, TVs, fridges, etc. Only this week has it really embraced developers and tried to make it easy for them to do this. Samsung’s future hinges in being able to rid itself of its dependence on Google’s Android operating system — either by building an operating system of its own, or a suite of apps that run on top of it that make a Samsung device so much more valuable than one from LG, Sony, HTC or Huawei.
Then there’s Microsoft. By making its operating system and much of its software free, Apple has thrown down the gauntlet to its old rival. It’s not saying these products have no value: it’s saying that software is what makes hardware compelling, and so we’re effectively making the two one single product. For Microsoft, still largely a software player, that’s quite scary. No wonder the company is betting heavily on building its own hardware.
In some ways this is good for the consumer, in some ways not. On the one hand we’re already seeing the hardware basically controlling the software — automatically updating itself, optimizing itself for the user. On the other, the goal here is clear: bind the user to a single stack of hardware, software and services, increasingly isolated from each other. A Samsung phone may be a great device to control your TV with, layering little apps atop the screen, but don’t expect it to work with your LG smart TV. And don’t bother trying to use Apple’s AirDrop feature to send a file to your Samsung phone.
The bottom line is that these companies are being hugely innovative, moving the puck at impressive speed. But in their efforts to escape becoming commodities, they’re pushing us into silos. Nice silos, very nice silos, but silos that make me think more of the past than the future.