The clock is ticking away for Google and its partners to make a move and establish a viable alternate mobile platform for mobiles and tablets while Apple is quickly fortifying and solidifying its leadership position.
A little over a year ago, considering the competition between the iPhone and other smartphones, I wrote the following lines in a short post in another blog:
[…] Now, Google is going in the right direction in trying to build a mobile platform with Android, but by not making the phones themselves, they fall into the same pit as Microsoft with Windows Mobile. They loose control of the end-user experience. Nokia, in this respect, is much better positioned now that it controls both development of the software platform and the hardware.
Fourteen months later, little has changed in this scenario. Google does have the right approach to building the OS, but had no success at creating a phone of its own, even with the experienced help of HTC. The Nexus One has had underwhelming sales since its release and Nokia seems clueless as to which way to turn.
One change is that the competition between the iPhone and other smartphones has been morphed by the tech press and tech bloggers into a competition between iPhone OS and Google’s Android mobile OS. This competition gained a lot of attention recently as the news that more devices with Android were sold in the last quarter with Android than with iPhone OS in the US and with the introduction of the iPad.
There are some interesting things to be aware of, when considering these changes. First there is the fact that Android can be licensed for free, and there doesn’t seem to be many alternatives for any company that wants to sell a phone that has some characteristics of a general computing platform, as the iPhone. This means that if you are in the business of building a mobile handset with aspirations of being called a smartphone and you are not Apple you are up the proverbial creek and there is only one paddle in sight: Android.
The same scenario applies to tablets with the arrival of the iPad on the scene. The only other company that might have a leg to stand on in the mobile OS game was Palm, which put in a lot of effort into building its webOS and which was recently acquired by HP. So, again, Android becomes the only other option for companies serious about creating tablets.
With Android being the best choice in both the smartphone and tablet markets, how can I say that Apple will trounce Google? Because Apple delivers something with iPhone OS that Android doesn’t: consistency.
Apple makes all iPhones, iPods and iPads that run iPhone OS, while Google has no control about which devices end up running Android. An article posted yesterday by Om Malik, of gigaom.com, quotes the following numbers about the Android platform: 60 devices from 21 OEM makers. Each of these devices is different and very frequently have widely varying capabilities. While these numbers are impressive, they make one thing clear: there is no “Android experience”. While one device might be very well implemented and provide a a good user experience, the next one might be exactly the opposite, depending on how and which version of Android was customized and used.
In stark contrast Apple controls every little detail of its devices which allows people who purchased their iPhones two years ago to know that their devices will run iPhoneOS four and what features they will or will not be able to support. This consistency also applies to third party applications purchased from the App Store. While there is no guarantee of quality, Apple certainly comes across as the sturdier or possibly more reliable than Google, as devices and iPhone OS are a huge part of its core business.
A user of an iPhone or an iPod Touch is pretty sure that changing or updating a device will not prevent previously acquired applications from working. While it is possible that some applications may no longer be maintained by the original author, Apple provides developers with enough time to test and update applications before new devices and iPhone OS updates are released.
iPhone applications were generally quite inexpensive and while several are very useful and you can grow quite attached to their use, you might not loose too much sleep over having to buy a few of them again, if you move to another phone platform. In the case of iPad applications this might not be exactly true. iPad has already attracted the attention of Mac and Windows software developers that have started to build and in some cases have already shipped applications which are quite complex and that might soon become a part of users’ everyday life. Apple’s iWork applications and the Omni Group’s OmniGraffle come immediately to mind. OmniGraffle is a $50 application which is used by a lot of people in their work and studies. This is an application that already existed on OS X and that has been ported and fully adapted to iPhone OS and iPad, having sold over 5,000 copies in 32 days.
Being the first platform to market with these much more sophisticated and more expensive applications, Apple will enjoy a bit of the same advantage that Microsoft has enjoyed with Windows for many years. The applications you want to run, run on that platform. The data you have collected for work is stored within these applications.
It is unclear for how long the iPad will be alone in the market, but right now Apple enjoys a huge advantage. In a month and a half about 7,000 applications have already become available for the device and you read comment after comment of people who are using the iPad for business and running into others doing the same. Given a bit more time, the combination of Apple’s consistent user experience, experience as a platform developer and market lead, will make it impossible for Google’s Android, with its inconsistent experience due to platform fragmentation (as each OEM customizes a different version of the OS to their needs) to catch up.
There might be a lot of devices running Android derivatives in the future, but it is unlikely that there will be a cohesive Android platform that will be able to face up to iPhone OS + iPhone/iPod/iPad + App Store. If Google doesn’t get its act together and bring some order to the party, Android might end up like Symbian that despite being the most used mobile OS in the world, very few users know or care about.