From Google Events to the Nexus Q home entertainment device, Google announced some really cool new social-oriented mobile features and services on Wednesday at its Google I/O developers conference. Apple did much the same earlier this month at WWDC, its World Wide Developers Conference. Ironically, though, the more impressive the proprietary features they debut, the more both companies open new opportunities for their competitors.
The problem - the elephant in the room, really - is that the vast majority of these new features and services work only on one company’s operating system. Folks on competing platforms are effectively locked out.
For Google and Apple, that’s competitive differentiation, intended to get people to choose their platform over the competitors. And there’s little doubt that these features will do just that - at least to a point.
Social Features That Separate People
But for users, though, these mobile-social features create a big, unexpected problem. Instead of connecting people and groups, they can do the exact opposite - separate groups according to what device they use.
No matter how successful these efforts, it’s simply unrealistic to expect that one company’s set of features will be so amazing that everyone will instantly switch over. It’s not likely that any feature will be so powerful that it will overwhelm the competition.
Take the Nexus Q, for example. Forget the issue of the chaos that ensues with a bunch of drunk partiers all trying to use their phones to grab control of the music playing on the Q (AirPlay wars are already legendary as iPhone and iPad users fight over what music or video to stream onto an Apple TV). The big problem is what about folks who don't have that capability? Are they going to buy an Android device just to work with your Nexus Q and an iPhone to so they can play their music with their other best friend’s Apple TV?
Or are you supposed to restrict your parties and other events to people that use the same platform you do? After all, if they don’t have Android, will they still be able to fully access or contribute photos to Google+ Events? It seems like many of these features will be available over the Web (or eventually in some dumbed-down version for other devices), but that’s an increasingly secondary access medium. (Google revealed that more Google+ sessions already occur on mobile devices than on the desktop.)
A Business Problem, Too
You might think this would be less of an issue in a business setting - because companies can go much farther in controlling which platforms its employees use. But even corporate IT departments can’t enforce those same kinds of rules on customers, suppliers and partners.
When it comes to networked apps that derive their power from connecting with other people, no one vendor can win the feature wars, no matter how good their arsenal. If Google and Apple really want people to use their social apps, they can’t exclude people who won’t spend the big bucks on their devices. Unless and until Google - and Apple, and Microsoft, and BlackBerry, and everyone else - make a real effort to make their social innovations available across all the major platforms, these services will ultimately be self limited.
Can You Say Facebook?
If anything, these proprietary social features create a huge opportunity for third-party alternatives - can you say Facebook? or Zynga? - that really do work cross-platform. Even if these third-party services are not as powerful as the native versions from Google and Apple (heck, even if they’re crippled in some way), the fact that they work on all devices gives them a significant advantage.
Facebook’s push for HTML 5 and the mobile Web is all about trying to leverage this opening. The more that Google and Apple concentrate on delivering awesome features that work only their own platforms, the more users may be forced to exclude some of their friends. And it doesn't seem likely that the social trendsetters will be in a hurry to do that.
It’s wonderful that Google is coming up with all this great new stuff - and much of it is great. But when you get to social, it’s got to be cross platform or it’s doomed in the long run.