The mobile platform horse race is very entertaining, and a very reliable way to get page views. But it’s also, increasingly, a second-order question. So far, Apple and Google are both winning, in different ways. That may change over time - Apple may make a substantially cheaper phone or developers may shift to making Android apps first. But that’s really not a very interesting topic anymore - everything that can be said has been said, and it wouldn't even necessarily change very much unless you're an Apple or Google shareholder.
To me, the first-order issue is the sheer scale of mobile. We’re going from 1.5bn PCs on earth, either corporate and locked down or consumer and shared and in neither case really mobile, to perhaps 3bn smartphones, that are completely mobile and personal. This means that the internet, by whatever metrics you want to use, gets two or three or four times bigger. It also means the internet can 'eat' a lot of new sectors, across things like, say, retail or payments.
Within this, complexity. I think there are three big differences between the desktop and mobile internet:
- ‘Pre-Netscape’ - the desktop internet resolved pretty quickly into ‘the web, and everything else’, and didn’t change much for 20 years. Mobile does not have that single unifying interaction model. We have apps and app stores and messaging systems and iBeacon and a lot more besides, and none of this is finished yet - we do not have resolution into one settled way to do things. Everything is still changing.
- ‘Pre-PageRank’ - as a consequence of this complexity the door is wide open for ways for people to find and discover services and ways for companies to reach those people. After the early chaos of the web Google’s PageRank gave a single unifying vector - we do not have such a vector for mobile services. Given the much greater complexity and sophistication of the smartphone platform versus the PC web browser, we may never even get that one unified tool.
- Identity - a smartphone is a a social platform in a way that a PC never was - it has an address book and many other features that apps like WhatsApp can leverage. But it isn’t clear what the point of identity that ties all of these together would be - is it the PSTN number? Email address? Facebook ID? Or some shifting mess of all of these? We have Facebook and Gmail, but it's almost as though we're waiting for them to be invented again.
As platform owners, Apple and Google will play roles in shaping some of these (or, at least, they will try to). But really, the platform wars are over and everything is wide open. What you look at and how you engage with it, share it, find and discover it are all wide open opportunities in a way that hasn’t been true on the web for a long time. That makes this a really exciting time to be talking to entrepreneurs at a16z.