When the ecosystem is broken, you gotta blame the platform

Two of the biggest mobile platforms give a lot of latitude to partners to make things work properly. That's a convenient approach, but for customers, blame usually goes back to the platform when things go bad.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor on
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Image: CNET

Most of us have experienced the following: The PC/phone/tablet starts throwing fits, and we enter the twilight zone. At least we might as well be there with Rod Serling as we research the problem, desperately looking for a solution, as we end up doing the "who's fault is it" shuffle.

It's not the platform we trust to keep us running that's causing our problem; we're told it might be the vendor of the device. The vendor says it's not its firmware causing the problem, so it might be one of the hardware component makers that hasn't got all the bugs out of its software driver that talks to the rest of the hardware. It's up to us to figure out the source of the problem and apply the proper solution to make it go away.

Far too many Windows users know this shuffle all too well. That's because the Windows ecosystem has been designed to put many system-level functions in the hands of the vendor or the system component maker (think Intel). Those functions require firmware or software drivers to make sure that every part of the system plays nice with every other part of the system.

When you step back and look at the platforms that work this way, and I'm looking at you, Microsoft and Google, it almost makes sense that the ecosystems that keep us running operate in just this manner. It seems logical that the hardware companies are in a better position to make the hardware work like it should. The problem is that for years, it hasn't worked well, and mainstream consumers bear the brunt of the way it works.

That such a catch-22 exists with two of the largest mobile platforms is proof positive the ecosystem is broken. Workarounds or not, users should not have to go on a quixotic quest to fix problems.

I'm not just picking on Microsoft for this less-than-ideal user experience, Google's Android works much the same way. Android phone and tablet users have probably experienced the same frustrations. Something stops working on the device, and it's time to get online to find out how to fix it. Often, the specified solution is to upgrade the device to the latest version of Android, which addresses the issue. Unfortunately, that may not even be possible.

Like the Windows scenario, the Android situation is not much better. Google tells the customer to install the latest version of system software as provided by the hardware vendor. The device vendor says you're running the latest version that is available to you. No entity can give you any idea when (or even if) the system software will be updated for your device. If a phone carrier is involved, even though a Google update is available as well as a vendor update for your device, the carrier has the final say on when or if an update will actually be forthcoming.

Those with experience with mobile devices know they must live with the system problems or go under the hood to get around the abysmal ecosystems described above. Given enough time, a component maker's hardware driver can be found outside the normal support system. While the device maker warns the user to apply such drivers at your own risk, savvy users know this is the only option to try to fix the problem.

Often, this works, but sometimes it fails, leaving the user with a device that still has the original problem, and now with system software that the device vendor and the platform maker are reluctant to support. This is because the user, who just wants the problem to go away, has installed hardware driver software that has not been approved by either the platform company or the device vendor.

That such a catch-22 exists with two of the largest mobile platforms is proof positive that the ecosystem is broken. Workarounds or not, users should not have to go on a quixotic quest to fix problems. No matter which company ends up getting the responsibility for fixing the customer's problem, it really should be the platform that has mechanisms in place to avoid support as stated above.

We can understand why Microsoft and Google designed the software support ecosystems the way they did. Hardware vendors know their systems better than anyone. But these systems have been fraught with problems for so long, with consumers bearing the brunt of it, that they'd better put in place some system to make sure that updates don't break the users' systems, and that solutions are in place when they do.

The huge mainstream consumer base that all companies desperately want to attract does not possess the technical savvy or the desire to jump through hoops to make their failing device work again. When they have a problem, they should be able to turn to the platform maker to get whatever software is required to make their user experience good again.

Savvy users may respond that such inexperienced users get what they deserve. They shouldn't play in the mobile space if they aren't willing to get their hands dirty in situations as described.

The platform makers should have a vastly different take on this. The mainstream market consisting of the Aunt Sallys and Uncle Billys (no disrespect intended, just names grabbed at random) is far bigger than the tiny segment of savvy users. The huge market of those who just want a good user experience cannot be ignored. How big is this market? Look no further than the half a billion+ customers (as of January 2013) who have credit cards on file with Apple's iTunes store.

All companies in the mobile space know very well how significant those customers would be to their business. That's why it's time for the platform makers to take control over this software support debacle and make it right. It's the only way to attract mainstream customers and keep them coming back. Customers deserve the extra effort from the platform makers.

The mobile space today, with the majority of customers who are not tech savvy, calls for a change to the ecosystem. Continuing the way it is currently, both in the Windows and Android ecosystem, is a recipe for disaster. The time to change is now, no matter how it upsets hardware partners. Once customers are lost due to the way things are, they will not come back. A great user experience is not a luxury, it is a requirement.

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PS: As an owner of a Windows 8 device, yesterday I received an email from Microsoft (shown above) advising me that the pre-release of Windows 8.1 is available. Clicking the link took me to a web page with a video aimed squarely at the mainstream user I have described in this article. It's a nice video with snappy music and lots of cute animals that got me excited about installing Windows 8.1, even a preview release.

Before installing it, I visited this Microsoft blog announcing Windows 8.1. It all looked exciting until I hit this paragraph:

Please note: Some tablets and PCs running newer 32-bit Atom processors require updates to their graphics drivers before they can run the Windows 8.1 Preview. Those tablets and PCs include the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, Asus VivoTab TF810C, HP Envy X2, HP ElitePad 900, Samsung Ativ Smart PC, and Fujitsu Arrows Tab. We are working closely with Intel and OEM partners to deliver updated drivers that will allow you to install the Windows 8.1 Preview as soon as possible.

This is another aspect of the broken Windows ecosystem. Microsoft makes a big splash with consumers building up the availability of Windows 8.1 and enticing mainstream customers to install it. The warning above was buried in a blog post and nowhere near the promotional material pushing customers to install the pre-release version.

Microsoft apparently knew that hardware partners might not be ready to handle the new Windows, but released it anyway. There's no telling what will happen to owners of the devices listed above who install the new version, and I'm not going to find out, given the warning.

"Buyer beware" is always appropriate, but if you can't trust the platform maker, then who can you trust to watch your back?

In this writer's opinion, this is a clear example of Microsoft not putting the customer first and handling things in a way to guarantee a smooth experience. It's another instance of Microsoft releasing an update to its own product, yet not allowing partners to get ready for it so customers have no problems. In a way, this instance is even worse than usual, as it's obvious that given the warning statement above, Microsoft knew that owners of these popular devices should exert caution with the update installation.

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