Interoperability as signal of relative market performance

There were two thematically similar pieces of news today – the first, Blackberry announced that it would add the once-popular BBM messaging service to iOS and Android; the second, Microsoft announced that outlook.com now supports chatting with Google accounts.

Going back a few years, both pieces of news would be bombshells, with bloggers likely proclaiming that hell has frozen over. In today’s tech scene, both are of minor note.

In grad school, a tech strategy professor had made the observation that efforts at providing interoperability usually make strategic sense for players who are trying to catch up. For market leaders, generally there is little strategic rationale to support your competitors’ platforms. The classic example of this would be productivity software, most famously office suites. Even today, there are a few competitors to Microsoft Office. Supporting Microsoft’s document formats are a core feature; it would be a non-starter to try to get adoption when you don’t support .doc / .ppt / .xls. Conversely, there is usually no reason at all for Microsoft Office to support competing office products’ proprietary formats. (Office may support some open standards, but that’s another story)

So one way to read these pieces of news today, is to see them as signal that Blackberry and Microsoft have on a strategic level acknowledged the dominance of its respective competitors. For Blackberry, even just a few years ago BBM was seen as a crown jewel, a killer app for its loyal user-base. To add cross-platform support would be like opening the floodgates for a mass exodus of users. – Well, that exodus happened anyway. For Microsoft, its web services have long offered some forms of interoperability (e.g. facebook chat support on Windows Messenger), but outright admitting that Gmail is more popular seems to be a first (just the title of the linked official post itself is revealing).

To extrapolate on the observation, Rene Ritchie made the observation that “as of today, every major mobile competitor… also makes apps for iOS“. This is obviously tied to Apple’s vertical integration business model, which is asymmetric compared to Google / Microsoft’s more horizontal play (hence, it is a much bigger deal for Apple to even consider making its software available to other platforms). And you can also make the comment that Apple doesn’t really have proprietary killer apps that would benefit from being cross-platform. But at least partially it is also a signal of Apple’s platform strength.

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