I’ve started using instant messaging applications on my Nokia N97 a little more (I’m a late bloomer) after my realisation just how expensive sms/texting is compared to IM messages and I have installed both Nimbuzz and Fring on my phone. I spent some time flipping between the two to see which one I prefer. While one may have some functionality the other lacks or doesn’t implement as well, they are both excellent apps and I could switch between the two ad hoc. Both applications access the instant messaging services I prefer. I can send messages on my phone, make VOIP calls and even check in with Twitter.
On that note I also have a number of options when it comes to instant messaging applications on my MacBook. I use Adium for most of the IM services I am registered with and Skype for all that Skype functionality (If Adium supported Skype text and voice, I’d probably just use Adium). I have iChat available on my Mac and while it doesn’t connect to most of the services Adium does, iChat does connect me with my primary Jabber/GTalk and MobileMe services. There are other alternatives too, some better than others.
This kind of choice goes beyond these sorts of applications and include mobile phone OS’s (Android, iPhone, Symbian, Maemo and even Windows Mobile?); VOIP providers (Skype or SIP?); voice telephony more broadly speaking (VOIP or mobile/fixed line voice); text-based messaging (IM or sms?); computer operating systems (Windows, Mac OS, Linux), and so on.
We have a range of choices when it comes to performing a range of tasks and there is an increasing degree of parity between many of those choices as technologies mature and converge on industry recognised standards. This degree of choice means companies need to innovate more to keep their users coming back.
Of course some services don’t have real alternatives or even satisfactory alternatives. Facebook has in excess of 350 million users and doesn’t have a feasible alternative. Google might be that alternative but its failure to implement a cohesive social strategy has given Facebook an opportunity to surge ahead, possibly out of reach.
Speaking of Google, Eric Schmidt has said that Google users have a perfectly suitable alternative to all of its services but are Yahoo! or Bing as good as Google search? Perhaps to some. Most Internet users prefer Google search by a comfortable margin. I am one of those users and I am ok with that although Google does control how I do much of what I do each day and that realisation brings with it a nagging fear in the background. I have similar concerns about Facebook because of its dominance in the space and its consistent failure to put its users first.
For the most part, though, we can choose the tool for a given task and that is refreshing. It wasn’t too long ago that Firefox’s introduction was a welcome relief from years of IE dominance and Netscape’s lackluster performance. As we enter a new decade (yes, I know 2011 is technically the beginning of the new decade, I still like to think of 2010 as the beginning of this new decade), we are likely to experience even more choice while, at the same time, we will see players like Google begin to tighten their grip and make it harder to leave their ecosystems simply because of the quality of their offerings. Apple and the iPhone is a good example of a tightly controlled ecosystem and a degree of lock-in, although Apple’s customers choose to live in that ecosystem because Apple makes such excellent products.
It all comes down to choice.