90:9:1 the odd ratio that technology keeps creating

Mozilla has killed off its Firefox OS, leaving the mobile OS market dominated by Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Will technology always follow the same pattern?

What do operating systems, browsers and search engines all have in common? It seems to be a ratio of 90:9:1 between the key players. One player dominates; then others get a minimal share.

Take mobile OSs: This week the Mozilla Foundation pulled the plug on Firefox OS the mobile OS which could have replaced native apps with HTML-based apps a final death throe in the mobile OS wars. There are now three main platforms Googles Android, Apples iOS and Microsofts Windows Phone for which worldwide shipments are currently running in a ratio of about 85:14:1 respectively.

Now look at desktop OS sales: the ratio stands in the most recent quarter at about 91:8:1 between Microsofts Windows, Apples Mac OSX, and self-build machines which probably get Linux.

Its oddly reminiscent of the 1% rule a rule of thumb observed as far back as 2006, which states that if you have a group of 100 people interacting online, then one will generate some content, nine will provide feedback, and 90 will simply consume it. (Studies have broadly confirmed that principle.)

In the PC and smartphone worlds, the 90:9:1 ratio has each time come about after a sort of Cambrian explosion in the early stages, as different players rushed to capitalise and try to be dominant.

On PCs, there were DR-DOS, MS-DOS, CP/M, GEM, Amiga, and later on BeOS and Linux (to name just a few).

On smartphones there were Symbian, Meego, Windows Mobile, Asha, BlackBerry 7, BlackBerry 10 (now effectively dead, as BlackBerry has moved to Android), and of course Firefox OS, as well as Jolla (which looks to be nearly dead) and Samsungs Tizen (which isnt).

In both cases the explosion was enabled by the growing commoditisation of components but because maintaining an operating system and an app ecosystem, whether on PC or smartphone, is an expensive business, there was a shakedown. BlackBerry, for example, gave up on BB10 because, chief executive John Chen hinted, it cost too much to write drivers for different chips; by going to Android, that challenge is abstracted away to Google.

Now look at search engines. In Europe, Google gets nearly 90% of all desktop searches, according to data from Statcounter (and other measures agree). Microsofts Bing gets 7.3%. Yahoo brings up the rear with 3.5%, and the remaining 1.2% goes to a host of others. For mobile, according to the same dataset, its 94% Google, 3% Yahoo, 2% Bing and 0.3% other.

Top 5 desktop, tablet & console browsers from July 2008 to November 2015 Photograph: StatCounter

How about browsers? In 2002-3 Microsofts Internet Explorer held prime position: its various versions peaked with a 95% share in those years, as Netscape faded and before Apples Safari and then Firefox (the browser) arrived in 2003 and 2004 respectively.

Firefox became the 9% player, and gained ground rapidly, peaking at about 24% of browser use in November 2009; there were times when the release of a new version of Firefox was an internet event.

But just as Internet Explorer fell away, Google Chrome arrived in September 2008 – and quickly became an important player. Now the desktop browser market is in upheaval, according to Statcounters numbers; Chrome is taking over, while Firefox and Internet Explorer are shrinking.

The more you look for it in networked environments, the more frequently some sort of 90:9:1 ratio seems to emerge once the market matures. Certainly there are variations: slightly more iPhone users and slightly fewer Mac users than the rule of thumb predicts, for example, while the dramatic shifts in the browser market come because Chrome has a platform for promotion almost comparable with Microsofts Windows: it is the only product that has ever been advertised on Googles front page.

But why should browsers and search engines come close to that ratio? They dont require commodity manufacture; their costs of deployment and maintenance are hidden from the consumer, who only has to use them. But theyre comparatively easy to build, and network effects from their use will tend to help those that do well.

Notably, all of these products are part of the networked world, and each is a mutually-exclusive activity that is, you can only use one at a time. Nobody (to a good enough measure) buys or uses two smartphones for themselves at once. Hardly anyone uses two desktop OSs. You can only do a search on one search engine at a time. You only use one browser at a time.

There is one notable technology hardware space where 90:9:1 clearly doesnt apply: games consoles. In the previous generation of consoles (Nintendo Wii v PlayStation 3 v Xbox 360) total sales were 101.2m to 85.9m to 84.9m nearly an equal split. The current generation continues to deviate from the rule. One possible explanation is that games consoles have never had their commoditisation moment: theres only one manufacturer for each, whereas there are multiple makers of PCs and smartphones. Thus games consoles could never see the consolidation around one platform or another, as long as the rival platforms could come up with compelling content. (Segas inability to do so led to its downfall as a hardware vendor.)

Theres another area where the ratio doesnt hold: Social networks. You can belong to and use Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram and Snapchat and dozens of others, and send the same content to each. In the messaging space, you can use WhatsApp and BBM and Google Hangouts and Skype. User numbers for those networks and apps dont follow that rule even approximately, even for daily users.

In their non-exclusivity, social networks seem very different from those task-based products search engines, browsers, PCs and smartphones.

So is 90:9:1 an incontrovertible law for products? That remains to be seen; but it may be a guide to the future on mutually exclusive activities. Will taxi companies (Uber, Lyft, Hailo) follow the same path? Or machine-learning algorithm deployment? It might be worth checking back in a few years.

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