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My idle thoughts on tech startups

The Unbundled Mobile Software Stack

Lee Hower
January 3, 2013 · 2  min.

I’ve been using Google’s Chrome browser on my iPad Mini for about a month now.  There are several things I prefer over Apple’s Safari, including the bookmark and search history sync with my other Chrome usage (on laptop) and some small UI touches.  But for now there’s no way to make an OS-level switch to make Chrome my default browser.  So if I click on a URL in another app, say an email reader or Twitter or whatever, iOS me to use Safari.

As we all know the mobile ecosystems have remained mostly walled gardens to date.  Apple has taken the fully integrated OS/hardware approach and while Android is an open source OS adopted by Samsung, HTC, and other device makers Google’s becoming more integrated via it’s Nexus devices (built by partners) and of course the Motorola acquisition.  While there’s a broad ecosystem of third party developers at the app level, even there you’ve seen the platform owners fight hard to bundle their own apps most notably in the maps showdown between Apple and Google.

We’ve seen this before through multiple generations of computing platforms largely driven by antitrust efforts.  The first chapter began more than 40 years ago with IBM being forced to unbundle software and hardware on mainframe platforms.  IBM “won” a Pyrrhic victory in the legal case by the early ’80s against the DOJ but by then they’d already given in to the pressure.  Microsoft famously had to open it’s desktop OS to allow other web browsers to complete against IE.  They further had to open up IE to allow consumer choice of embedded services like search and media players.  And of course the FTC and others have been poking into all sorts of practices at Google in recent years.

Smartphone and tablet platforms are likely to be no different in the coming years.  You’ve already seen a small handful of third-party apps achieve meaningful scale in replacing bundled apps – Instagram for camera, Evernote for notes, Sparrow had some modest traction in client email.  Apple and Google haven’t deemed these monopolies worth fighting for, though Google acquired Sparrow, and Apple’s already gotten it’s hand slapped on the iOS platforms for e-book pricing collusion.

In the not too distant future you’re going to see a broader array of apps being used in core categories (browser, email, contacts, calendar, maps / local search).  You’ll also see antitrust pressure to break the OS level shackles that favor the bundled apps, so a consumer can choose a default browser for instance.  A lot of the opportunity will still fall to incumbents with scale… Apple and Google themselves in most categories, Yelp et al in local, Facebook in social, etc.  And the power of the default will remain immense… there’s a reason why IE remains the dominant browser on desktop (esp on Windows machines) Apple Mail dominates client email on iOS / OSX.  But there will be some opportunities for ISVs and even startups in nearly all of these categories.

Smartphones and tablets are ushering in a paradigm of ubiquitous computing, where consumers compute with broader array of devices across a larger portion of their day.  But at the end of the day, the forces of unbundling at the application level that have prevailed on nearly every prior computing platform are likely to persist.

Lee Hower
Lee is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has spent his entire career as an entrepreneur and investor in early-stage software and internet startups.