Mac Musings

Open Source Will Never Displace Closed Platforms

Dan Knight - 2010.09.01 - Tip Jar

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I don't know about you, but I find the projections of the iPad's market share ridiculous. And that's true whether it's iSuppli's prediction that Apple's tablet will control 70.4% of that market next year or Acer's wet dream that it will decline to just 20% of the market.

In the case of iSuppli, it's not the range of its numbers that I find ridiculous, but the level of accuracy. Nobody knows how the "media tablet" market will look at the end of this year, let alone in 2011 and 2012, but iSuppli is making educated guesses with three places of accuracy.

That's nonsense. Predicting "about 70%" for the iPad in 2011 seems reasonable, as would "60% to 65%" in 2012, but iSuppli tries to give a very precise, official sounding 70.4% for 2011 and 61.7% for 2012. They may be in the ballpark, but the level of precision is unwarranted.

Acer is one of many companies hoping to compete with the iPad and have a product on the market before the holiday season. It is to its advantage to downplay the significance of the iPad, and Acer chairman J.T. Wang said he expects Apple's iPad market share to drop to only 20% to 30% after the market stabilizes. (Of course, the sensationalist headlines only quote the 20% figure.)

Hey, it could happen. With the Lisa and original Macintosh, Apple once had about 100% of the market for PCs with a graphical user interface; that has dropped well below 5% at times, although it has been growing for years. The release of Windows 1.0 in 1985 was the beginning of the end for Apple's dominance in the market.

What I find disingenuous about Wang's comments is his claim that a closed platform will eventually lose to an open one.

Android vs. iPhone

His evidence: Android phones now have a larger share of the smartphone market than the iPhone does, and there's a lot of data to back this up. Interestingly, Bango recently reported that Android users account for about 50% more online visits than iPhone users, but at the same time iPhone users account for nearly as many page views.

Very interesting!

Others point to the explosive growth of the Android market using figures like "400% growth" (such as Web Browsing from Android Phones Grows 400% at the Expense of Apple). High growth rates are easy to accomplish when a product is new, and the first Android smartphone, the HTC Dream (a.k.a. T-Mobile G1 in the US), has been on the market since October 2008. T-Mobile is not a major player in the US market, falling well behind Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, so the early Android market was very limited. Now that Verizon, the largest carrier in the US, and others are offering Android phones, growing market share is a given.

By comparison, the iPhone has been available since June 2007, when it was launched as an AT&T exclusive in the US. The iPhone started out tied to the biggest US carrier at the time, and it was quickly established as the smartphone to have.

You have to wonder how many people are buying Android because Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and the rest are unable to offer the iPhone. You have to wonder how many people choose Android because Android phones are cheaper than iPhones. And you have to wonder if anyone chooses Android phones just because they use a free, open source operating system.

Lots of imponderables. I know that I would very much love to have an iPhone 4, but my Verizon contract goes until mid-June 2011, and I'm not paying a huge penalty for early account termination. Besides, that's about the time the iPhone 5 should go on sale. If Verizon doesn't offer the iPhone by then, I will be very tempted to switch to AT&T. I am not likely to be tempted to choose an Android phone.

Any Other Market?

Acer's Wang points to one market where an open source platform is outperforming a closed platform, at least temporarily. And he offers no explanation as to why Android is beating iOS at this point. Is it because the open source OS allows for cheaper phones? Is it because Android is available through a lot more carriers than the iPhone?

But the big question is: In what other market has open source overtaken a closed platform?

It hasn't happened with personal computers, where Microsoft Windows completely dominates, the Mac OS runs a distant (but solid) second, and Linux - the open source alternative - languishes at about 1% of the market. That puts it in fourth place, as iOS now has a larger market share than Linux.

It hasn't happened in the price conscious netbook niche, where the majority of netbooks ship with Windows, not Linux, even though Linux models tend to be less costly.

It hasn't happened in the realm of office suites, where Microsoft Office eclipses OpenOffice. And it hasn't happened in the world of image editing programs, where Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and a number of other commercial apps have a lot more users than the GIMP, the best known open source alternative.

Outside of the smartphone market, there is only one area where an open source platform is making serious inroads against a closed platform: servers. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but one source pegs Linux at 20% of the server market based on factory shipments - that is, computers sold as servers and shipped with Linux installed.

That does not take into account PCs sold with Windows and switched to Linux, nor does it account for PCs sold without an installed operating system. Neither does it include PCs that techs have built themselves, so the most we can say is that Windows Server has less that 80% of the server market.

A lot of Web servers use open source operating systems, primarily Linux and BSD, but it's hard to pin down hard numbers. Apache, an open source Web server application, commands two-thirds of the market (based on the number of domains served, which may not comport with the number of servers), but it runs on Windows and Linux and Mac OS X.

Okay, that does give us a second market where an open source solution beat out a closed platform, but with only two examples, there doesn't appear to be a lot of evidence for Wang's contention that a closed platform will eventually lose out to an open source one - although that may depend on how long "eventually" is.

Close Platforms Here to Stay

If we had a truly open mobile market, which may never be the case here in the US, Android might never have surpassed the iPhone's market share. However, thanks to Apple's exclusive agreement with AT&T and the impossibility of taking even a jailbroken iPhone to Verizon (which uses a protocol incompatible with the one AT&T uses), we have a very closed market.

If every mobile user had the option of choosing the iPhone or an Android phone, instead of only 40% of the US market, things would be very different. At a minimum, I'd estimate that twice as many people would choose the iPhone, and the majority of them would be choosing it over Android for use with Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and other carriers.

But since they can't offer the iPhone, they play up the next best solution, Android. They are following one of the oldest rules of retailing: Sell what you've got. Verizon customers can't walk into a Verizon store and compare an Android phone with an iPhone. They see something that works like the iPhone, which Verizon can't sell them, and go for it rather than change carriers, pay early termination fees, etc.

The big question is, how may of them are as satisfied with their Android phones as iPhone owners are? When it comes time to replace their Androids in two years or so, will they stick with the platform, or will they decide that Android is a pale second behind the iPhone and switch to Apple's platform?

With two exceptions (Android phones in a close market and Apache server software), open source platforms have not displaced closed platforms. Windows is entrenched. Mac OS X is growing. Businesses are more likely to trust something they have paid for over something that's free may have no call center support. Personal users are unlikely to use something that isn't being used at work or school. And Linux remains a great, free, open source option that hardly anyone chooses.

Despite the emotional appeal of free, open source software, the simple fact is that people prefer the elegance, familiarity, and support they get with closed platforms such as Windows, OS X, and iOS.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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