Can we move beyond tech tribalism in the mobile debate?

The need to declare one operating system a winner is distorting the debate about a mobile world - and its consequences for the rest of our lives. How do we leave tech tribalism behind?

A serious problem that holds us back from really exploring the tech landscape is tech tribalism. It’s become almost impossible to have a serious conversation online about the difference between mobile phone operating systems – as once it wasabout desktop operating systems. There’s enough brand-loyal, committed consumers who won’t let any conversation happen without them becoming immediately defensive about any perceived slight on their operating system. For example, Adobe last week mentioned that only 3% of downloads of digital magazines produced using its digital publishing systems happen on Android. The first comments were, well, defensive.

There’s plenty of other data kicking around that suggests that people use iOS and Android in very different ways. One report suggests more online shopping purchases happen on Android than iPhone. Another report gives the advantage to iOS – which suggests that there might be a big iPad factor skewing the numbers. It’s clear that this mix of tablets, phones, operating systems and services is a complex ecosystmes, which is ill-understood at the moment. We need research on demographics, types of retailer, types of purchasing, use occasions…

None of which is particularly assisted by a “my phone rocks, your phone sucks” mentality, beloved of both the comment wars on blogs and the subsection of the tech press that prefers picking a fight to picking through the data. Insisting on viewing Android and iOS as exactly head-to-head competitors means that we don’t look squarely at what’s actually happening. There’s an underlying interesting story in the fact that iOS web browsing and magazine downloading statistics are so far ahead of the Android ones. People are clearly using these two platforms in different ways – and it’s far more interesting and useful to explore why this might be the case, what the differences are and what facets of the OS lead to these uses, than it is to arbitrarily declare one system the “winner”.

Broadly, though, I’m not sure that the mindset that sees two technology platforms as mortal rivals is a useful one. There aren’t many other industries where you’d want that to be the case: just one movie studio, or car manufacturer doesn’t feel like a healthy way for a market to operate. Yet people grow so tribal about their phones. People are often tribal about their sports teams – but they don’t want the other teams to fail utterly. After all, who would there be for them to play matches against? It is not good for the industry for one platform to be utterly dominant: look at the stagnation Windows suffered during the period where it so dominated the desktop market that various governments felt bound to intervene because of monopoly issues.

Fundamentally, the mindset of the fan seems to be that for their preferred platform to win, the other has to lose. That is clearly not the case. There is more than enough room in the market for two mobile operating systems – and maybe more. The innovation that results from battles between them benefits everybody. When a great new release of iOS comes out, Android fans should cheer. When Android gets every better, iOS users should be heartened. Two neck-and-neck operating systems drives both Google and Apple to work harder, to create better products and make our experience as users better.

Perhaps the tech industry needs to add two words to its questions: “for me”. There’s a world of difference between “which is the best phone operating system?” and “which is the best phone operating system for me?” It moves the focus of the debate from “is my system the winner” to “how well does my system serve me?” That’s a question all of us should be asking of our technology – is it meeting our needs, does it satisfy us? Blind tribalism discourages that sort of analysis.

Once that more analytical mindset’s ingrained, perhaps the rest of us can get on with having a more productive conversation about how handheld computing is changing the world – and how we can change it further.