Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Mobile Gardener - Part 1: Competition As Metaphor

As I've always said... we're in an exciting time in the tech industry, with disruptive innovations springing up left and right.  On the one hand, companies like Microsoft are winning praise for devices like its new Kinect while competitor Nintendo and its ground-breaking Wii platform seem to have plateaued (Nintendo experiencing its first quarterly loss in 7 years). On the other, Google has managed to upset the Apple cart by halting the advance of the iPhone with the explosive rise of its Android OS.  That said, we're beginning to see a somewhat worrisome trajectory and a pattern to go along with it.

Why "worrisome"? Well, in the mindset of futurists, we all accept that we inevitably reap what we sow. That in mind, I wanted to take a considerate look at extending a basic metaphor... gardening... to what's happening in the most vibrant industry sector, namely, mobile computing.

The Gardener's Constants

While any attempt to imply a one-to-one relationship from a metaphor always ends in disappointing incongruities, it certainly doesn't preclude the usefulness of extracting basic lessons and insights.  Disclaimer extended, let's dive in and see if we can't discern something of value.

Here is the crux of my comparison:
  • Landlords: Platform Vendors
  • Gardeners: Platform Developers
  • Land/Gardens: Platforms
  • Plants: Applications
From that, you can draw a few additional distinctions:
  • Water: Support 
  • Soil: Ecosystem (SDK, Sales Channel, Marketshare)
  • Sunshine: Revenue
  • Growth: Expansion
  • Weeds: Spam/Spyware/Malware/Viruses
  • Harvesting: Sales / Downloads 
  • Unauthorized Harvesting: Piracy
But what about "free" applications?  They're important and appreciated by everyone, so you might ask... how can any application/plant exist without revenue/sunlight? The answer is that "even with indirect[revenue], respectable growth is possible." So, let's begin.

For the purpose of simplicity, let's focus on the United States for our discussion.

Sony Corporation,  Microsoft Corporation, Google Inc., Nintendo America, Research In Motion Limited, and Apple, Inc. are the leading platform vendors in our modern consumer mobile applications market.  If you're a gardener... er... mobile applications developer... you'll want to deal with at least one of them. When it comes to the burgeoning mobile sector, they are by far the landlords with the most viable plots of land whether you're trying to develop on the PSP, the HTC Surround, the EVO 4G, the DS, the Blackberry Pearl, or the iPod Touch. No one else matches the influence and innovation these players introduce into the space.

While its plausible, as RIM has recently asserted, that the amount of native applications on its new Playbook platform isn't necessarily relevant to the likelihood of a successful or useful product... its probably safe to assume the comment closely resembles Apple's attempt to elevate the prominence of "web apps" when it first launched its iPhone platform (and did not yet see an emphasis on native applications as viable given the product's nascent security model).  But, as we all know, when Apple launched its App Store in mid-2008, it changed everything.  Research firm ChangeWave conducted a recent survey that implies that applications are the prime reason consumers choose a particular smartphone, followed by "ease of use".  Exclusive titles are the bread & butter of all game systems and "killer apps" are often the deciding factor in the rise and fall of any popular electronic device.

Walled Garden: The Rise of Awareness

It's important to get this comment out of the way so that its not a hanging punchline.  The most overused expression in this gardening metaphor, is one we all hear on a regular basis.  Namely, that those developers and customers who choose to do business with Apple, Inc. and their iOS platform, are operating in what is called a "walled garden".  By this, the commenters are usually referring to the nature of the platform Apple provides and the degree of control it often chooses to assert with all parties.  This level of control is often portrayed as an endemic criticism towards Apple itself.  In horticulture, however, a walled garden is used to provide security and contributes to what is referred to as a microclimate, allowing for the thriving of plants that would not otherwise survive in an unmodified climate.

The irony in this criticism however, is that with the recent exception of Google's Android Marketplace, the entire smartphone and mobile gaming industry has always leaned towards a walled garden approach.  No developer had a reasonable expectation that his/her application concept would be naturally be approved for distribution on any platform, and in those instances where there was no walled garden to nurture growth, those developers often suffered from market lackluster performance and/or poor harvests.

It's also worth noting that early iOS developer Neven Mrgan, made an interesting point in his blog on the metaphor earlier this year:
I’m assuming we’re supposed to compare this approach to the freer alternatives such as community gardens and city parks. Ignoring for a moment the fact that these gardens are also regulated by serious restrictions on what one can and can’t do, it still puzzles me that the “walled garden” is presented as an obviously undesirable structure.
He concludes by saying:
I’m not saying the [Apple] App Store is a beautiful garden. That is not a very good metaphor at all — but insofar as it applies, it doesn’t strengthen any App Store detractor’s case… unless they’d also argue that the Portland Japanese Garden should open its doors, run on monopoly money, and turn from a meditative oasis into a busy bazaar.
This reality is at the center of certain bellwethers coming into play.

Five Gardening Basics for Beginners

There is a nice article on gardening available at It seeks to give budding gardeners (ha, ha) some rudimentary rules on how to get the kind of results everyone can appreciate.

Here are the bullet points they've layed out, along with my summaries.
  1. Prepare your Soil - Till, analyze, and build it up to improve its composition of nutrients and ability to retain moisture.
  2. Watering Matters - Less can be more. Too much watering leads to immature root systems that are overly dependent on you. Give extra attention during dry spells.
  3. Let the Sunshine In - Consider the availability of direct sunlight with regards to how much you want to grow.  Even with indirect sunlight, respectable growth is possible.
  4. Care for Your Garden - Weed your garden. Thick planting can help blunt ambitious weeds.
  5. It All Takes Time - Proper timing makes all the difference. Know which seasons to plant, and when something has grown to maturity.
In the next part of this article, I'll layout exactly how the companies mentioned approach the concepts mentioned above, and what it spells for the future of mobile computing as a whole.  This is really a fun exercise for those interested in the industry, so give it some thought yourself.  You'll probably see where this is going.

Next Up:
The Mobile Gardener - Part 2: Surveying the Landscape...