The days of the desktop wars are waning, and not because desktop hardware sales are still shrinking. Now we are seeing a new type of competition coming to the fore: app wars.
But thanks to the rise of the smartphone, consumer attention is now firmly riveted on the application layer, not the operating system layer, so that is where business will need to be fought for. It won't be as hard-fought as the desktop wars, if only because there won't be multi-million dollar marketing budgets being used to lob fear, uncertainty and doubt at the latest version of Windows, OS X or Linux. In fact, it may not be a war at all for most applications, but rather a war fought on a different battlefield altogether.
What An App-Centric World Looks Like
The approach of a typical user could be highlighted by a recent day I had, when I had to manage to get my kids to the dentist, my cat to the vet and still put in time here at ReadWrite, my consultancy and in class preparation for the new semester.
This is by no means a typical day for me, but it was certainly the most mobile in a while, and so really hammered home how I depend on apps—far more than I depend on operating systems.
To write articles, I was using iA Writer (on my iMac, Macbook and iPad when I could not find a Wi-Fi cloud). Hootsuite was managing my social media accounts. Feedly was pulling in the news. Skype to talk to my colleagues. Gmail to do the mail.
All of this was done while hopping from machine to machine—and the only thing I really cared about was the apps. The platforms being used (in this case OS X and iOS) mattered not one whit.
At this point, you could argue that since I happened to be firmly ensconced in Apple land, then platforms do matter. To some degree that is true: because I like iA Writer as a Markdown tool, I am sort of tied to the Apple platforms.
But I could have just as easily used Office 365 if I wanted to live in Windows world, or be completely platform agnostic and used Google Docs. Since Markdown is way more useful to me than those rich document tools, I probably could have used Dillinger on any device.
This is the nature of the app wars: for every app I find that really works for me on a given operating system, you can probably find an app that will work just as well on another platform or all of the platforms, if the app is a Web-based service.
I can count on one hand the number of apps that I don't want to give up that have no good cross-platform equivalent. Eventually, that number will dwindle to zero, and on that day—for me—the desktop wars will end.
On The Silicon Battlefield
You may already be in that position. If you are, it's kind of a nice place to be, with the capability to hop between devices and use the apps you want and have your creations and information at your disposal wherever there's a connection to the Internet.
For operating system vendors like Microsoft and Apple, it's a bit of a nightmare. Especially for Microsoft, since Windows default position of dominant computing device operating system for so many years meant that it hasn't had to worry about apps being developed for Windows. But when you hear Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer touting Flipboard, Facebook and NFL Fantasy Football as native apps for Windows 8.1, you know there's trouble.
Apple has a similar problem in the mobile sector: for every service that has an iOS and Android version, it has a tougher time justifying the features and prices of its mobile devices. Because the operating system doesn't matter as much as the apps do.
Nokia has realized that if the operating system is no longer what consumers care about, then by God Nokia is going to differentiate on what they can. The Nokia Lumia 1020 is certainly a strong example of how such differentiation will look.
This will be the coming trend on all platforms, be it desktop, tablet or smartphone. The apps will be the great equalizer, nullifying the importance of the operating systems. Sure, there will be cool differences between the operating systems that will draw some customers in, no matter what. But it will be the apps that they use that will be the true heart of customer loyalty.
Therefore, a renewed push on hardware will begin to dominate the marketing campaigns. Better cameras, lighter devices, faster processors—because you will want the best device to run your apps, whether native or Web-based.
The desktop wars were fought with applications. The app wars will be fought with hardware.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.