Debunking the “Smartphone War”

Gartner research shows that Android will surpass the iPhone in market share by 2012. With the Android push, Droid, and rumored Google Phone, the Google strategy seems to be clear – be the operating system of mobile devices. Assuming that actually happens, the question becomes if Google will choose to follow in the footsteps of Microsoft and the PC or try to translate that presence into creating obsessive, dedicated users and developers.

Despite criticisms about Apple and especiallly its App Store policies, Apple has a unique ability to engage and excite customers and developers. No, Apple does not have the market cap of Microsoft. It does have 100,000+ apps on a platform that is less than two years old, customers that will yearly (even monthly) ante up for the latest Apple hardware and accessories, and a stock price just less than seven times that of MSFT.

There’s something to Apple’s madness. Their meticulous, proprietary, often questioned approach to business is all for the sake of quality, innovation, and perfection. It pays…literally. Customers flocked to creations like the iPod even though it was limiting and not the most “open” of all choices. Although kicking and screaming about App Store policies, developers have yet to abandon building apps for the iPhone. The reason is that the Apple approach produces. It produces better and simpler products. Customers are happy to give up control for better. Developers are willing to participate in Apple’s world because they have a higher probability of continuing to have livings as independent developers than with other options.

Mac and iPhone apps have a particular simplicity yet sophistication to them. Of course, most importantly, they are polished and very shiny. Shiny cost money. Not only is the Mac an expensive computer, most software isn’t free. Now, that might sound strange to those who have been working on a Mac for years but in the PC world, there are often dozens of software applications for any one particular task, many of which are free indefinitely (whether open source or freeware). In addition to there being far fewer options for a particular type of software, free is typically not an option on Mac beyond a fifteen to thirty day trial.

Yet Mac users generally don’t mind paying for Mac software, particularly because it seems priced fairly. Many Mac applications often are priced in the $20-50 range. Comparative to PC software, these costs are significantly less while the quality of the applications are (subjectively) much higher.

It’s amazing how many third-party independent Mac developers there are. They are making their livings by developing Mac software. The most interesting software on the Mac is not developed by Apple. Yet on Microsoft’s PC, the best software is written by none other than Microsoft and historically, that software has been very expensive.

Herein lies a major difference between Apple and Microsoft that is instructive on what’s happening with the iPhone and Android “smartphone war.” Apple’s commitment has been to be a platform. They provide that through owning the device (e.g., Macs and iPhones) and the experience (i.e., the operating systems on these devices) but not the applications themselves. While providing guidance and asking their developers to play nice in their carefully constructed world, they ultimately want their developers to be software innovators, to be the ones creating the most interesting applications. They want them to profit on the Apple platform.

Look at Android’s backer Google long enough and it’s not so hard to see it having hints of Microsoft’s approach. Google is now largely focused on its applications, as Microsoft was with its Office suite. Even though it has made acquisitions in the mobile space, those purchases were largely about monetizing the mobile market. A nice plan when all of its Web-based applications will eventually be optimized and running on Android devices. Google has thrived on innovating internally and scooping up other innovators externally but it has yet to tackle the same problem Microsoft never conquered — building an Apple-like ecosystem.

Sure, Microsoft has an ecosystem but it’s not Apple-like. Consider, for example, how long Windows Mobile has existed compared to the iPhone OS. Windows Mobile users were content to use their Microsoft applications and developers never had easy access to build, distribute, and generate profits from developing applications in that environment.

Android deals with some of these issues. It’s somewhat easier for developers to build applications. Unlike the iPhone, however, Android’s complete openness has lead to lack of standards, having to account for numerous carrier and device firmware combinations, and a multitude of other problems. Additionally, there is currently only one serious distribution channel — the Android Market on the device itself.

Based on the stats of how people discover iPhone apps, that last point may seem to be a non-issue. Apps are currently a major selling point for mobile devices though and there are basically no good ways for potential Android users to learn about Android apps until they purchase an Android device.

The value of a desktop companion like iTunes also surpasses app discovery. An iTunes Account provides a natural and existing payment mechanism for iPhone apps. iTunes itself acts as a library and backup of the device and its applications, as well as helps with the actual configuration and management of the device.

There are many other reasons the iPhone will likely continue its application dominance, including sharing code and easily being able to sync with its desktop counterparts. There’s a chance, however, that many of these points won’t matter at all. Although still early, Android appears to initially be catering to the same types of people that don’t buy Mac: technology generalists and purists. The generalist could be described as the person that has a PC and uses it “as is.” Their more important applications are Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word. The PC gives them everything they need and provided it runs fast (enough) and isn’t infected with a virus, they are happy.

The purists are the same types of people that run Linux, want everything to be open, and need ultimate control over their devices for ideological reasons. They’d sacrifice everything, including most software and applications, to ensure they own their device and can customize it as they see fit. If they can’t have an important piece of software, many of them will build it themselves.

In terms of the applications, the Android situation glaringly reflects why people like PCs and Windows Mobile. The best applications on Android are built by Google and those applications are presently the most compelling reason to get an Android device. It’s easy to “give up” all 100,000 applications for the 7-10 that someone really wants.

Both the generalist and purist come from a world where software is always “free” or just there. Google could be entirely satisfied and do quite well with serving these types of customers, becoming a Microsoft in the mobile market. To that extent, Android apps might not be so different than software on the PC – significant choices, many of which are just OK. Independent developers would have a hard time making a living in that environment.

Meanwhile, Apple may see history repeating itself. They might not be the ultimate leader in mobile device market share — and they are probably fine with that. They don’t need to be the biggest. They want to be themselves. They want the most crazed set of customers and developers. They want to keep and protect their ecosystem and continue to be a platform for users and developers, whether on the desktop or mobile device.

If all stays the same, Apple and Google will each be winners in their own rights with the losers being RIM, Symbian, Palm’s webOS (playing the part of Custer’s last stand), and to some extent Windows Mobile. That is an “if” but Google would have to aggressively change its style and approach, if it wants a bigger part of the Apple pie.