Last week I attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. A few years ago CES was not on my calendar as a “must-attend” show. While there has been Linux in play in consumer devices for many years, only in the last few years has Linux become a fundamental building block of virtually all major consumer electronics segments, from mobile phones to televisions to stereo equipment to automobiles. CES is now an event I simply can’t miss.
This year I was struck by the shifting nature of software ecosystems. On one hand you had Steve Ballmer and Steven Elop repeating over and over how Microsoft and Nokia will be the "third ecosystem" to Apple and Android’s already successful ones. I find it ironic that what Ballmer means when he says he wants “to build the strong third ecosystem in the smartphone market” is that Microsoft and Nokia really want to be well, Microsoft and Nokia again. Except this time in third place. We all know that the rise and hold of Microsoft’s desktop domination was driven not by technology superiority but by the “ecosystem,” the availability of applications and peripherals supporting that operating system (OS), and only that OS. Microsoft and Nokia would like to return to that world with their mobile platforms. As Elop said, “We believe the industry has shifted form a battle of devices to a war of ecosystems.”
But are they too late? Will ecosystems really matter as much in the world of HTML5?
Let’s be honest. HTML5 is really just another way to say “the Internet,” and when it comes to breaking "ecosystem" lock in there have been fewer better mechanisms than the Internet. With HTML5, developers can target multiple platforms with their applications, making silo’ed app stores less important than they are today. Imagine a world where developers can use new tools to publish their apps to the Android, Apple, Amazon and “whatever else” store with one click. No 30 percent revenue share if they don’t want it. No proprietary programming interfaces. That is the promise of the Internet.
AT&T has made a huge bet on HTML5. Even Apple promotes HTML5 and touts that every Apple mobile device, every new Mac, every new version of Safari, will support it. As they say, "These web standards are open, reliable, highly secure, and efficient. Standards aren't add-ons to the web. They are the web."
A new developer survey out this week shows three quarters of developers are planning HTML5 projects. And, why wouldn't thye? The promise of "write once, run everywhere" has always been incredibly alluring for any developer who wants the widest possible market for her or her apps.
I believe that HTML5 will be begin to be very important in 2012 and will make great strides in leveling the playing field away from the largest two mobile ecosystems. I also think it will help Android, since Android on other devices, like TVs, are also prone to application ecosystem fragmentation. As Wired Magazine says in their discussion of ecosystem wars in the (Android) television market, “This trepidation around rallying around a common platform is troublesome for consumers, who ultimately just want to use apps that work.”
HTML5 could deliver that experience and fuel a truly open mobile world where ecosystems won’t matter quite so much. Of course the hardware vendors must support and enable those standards, and to do that they must see it as in their best interest. They must embrace HTML5 as a way to enhance their platform and reduce the costs of building and supporting a software ecosystem. While some see closed app stores as a way to differentiate and generate revenue in a tight margin business, I personally feel that the wisdom of the Internet, along with vendor opportunities for revenues (such as in-app transactions) will win. Only time will tell.