There was an article published on the Stratechery blog last week about the failings of BlackBerry (and Nokia) that put in mind a piece written a few years ago by The Partners’ Jim Prior (and part of his book Preserved Thoughts).

Ben Thompson’s piece on the mobile industry noted that, in the relatively short history of personal computer operating systems, there’s only been space for two competitor platforms (or two and a half at a push). The killer for the third (or fourth) OSs is that the opportunity costs for developers to develop for a platform are generally too great to make it worth the effort; hence we end up with duopolies – Windows v Mac, iOS v Android and so on.

Jim Prior wrote about the challenges of third-placed competitors in the context of the 2010 General Election, noting how the Liberal Democrats managed to place themselves as being the “new” party in competition with the “old” parties (Labour and Conservative) and how that was a clever strategy in the context of them trying to break through against the political duopoly (of course, how it all panned out in the end is a different story altogether). From Jim’s perspective, there’s a human factor at play here  that’s as simple as we find it much more difficult to make choices when there are more than two options.

If you think about most marketplaces, you will usually see a monopoly, duopoly, or complete fragmentation: the former state is generally legislated against by regulation, and the middle one seems to be what happens when a fragmented marketplace eventually shakes itself out; a few markets seem, however, to sustain a plethora of players: in burgers it’s MacDonald’s v Burger King; in cola it’s Coke v Pepsi; but in car fuel there are a number of major players, as there are in the auto industry itself.

What challenges duopolies in the tech sector? Well, generally it seems it’s the next significant iteration in technology: iOS and Android rose to prominence as we moved from “feature phones” to smart phones (and replaced BlackBerry OS and Symbian in the process); the Windows/Mac divide emerged out of the chaos that was the first few years of home computers into the personal computer.

Where will the next duopoly arise? There’s a lot of hype around “wearable” computing at the moment, but that feels a few years away. The living room is another potential option…  Or maybe something that us mere mortals can’t even begin to imagine today…

One thought on “The power of two

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