Fans of Apple’s iPhone and iPad platforms should be thrilled by the exciting news coming out of Google last week.
At the company’s I/O conference they announced Android 2.2, or “Froyo,” a significant update to their mobile phone OS. The open platform powers many of the iPhone’s most viable competitors, including the Verizon Droid, and Google’s own Nexus One.
Why is this good for the iPhone? Because it’s doomed without a proper competitor, and thus far, it’s been lacking one. What happens to fighters who nobody spars with? Regardless of size, skill, or strength of weapon, they end up flopping about the arena alone. Never defeated, but never victorious.
Apple came out swinging with the launch of iPhone in 2007, and has done an admirable job of shadowboxing: enhancing the device and expanding the platform with iPod touch and iPad. In the absence of serious competition Apple’s legendary paranoia has served some of the same function, but grit and independence of vision will only get you so far.
The details of Android 2.2 are not that interesting to me. What’s important and inspiring is that they are iterating on the product, and not throwing their arms up in defeat. Google lets us know they will not be sitting this round out, and their fighting posture sends a message to Apple, and to the world: the iPhone is assailable.
In order for Apple to benefit from this fight, they need to zero in on the qualities of Android that actually pose a threat. Sam Pullara attempted to give them a hand, by identifying Android 2.2′s lightning-fast Java VM as a potentially deadly blow. I think Sam is overstating the performance overhead in Objective-C. The language’s message-dispatch features have been so finely-tuned by Apple that any criticisms should come pre-loaded with proof of specific performance problems.
Even if we assume that Android’s fast VM does trump Objective-C for speed, is it meaningful to the competition? Duncan Davidson, an excellent photographer who happens to also be a legendary Java expert, says no:
“A faster VM will certainly help things out. But Android’s eventual fate will have little to do with how fast the VM is or how long method dispatches take on the iPhone. Instead, it’ll have to do with harder things like user experience, service plans, interoperability, and excellent applications.”
By most accounts, Android phones still fail to match iPhone when it comes to all those things that Apple does best: simplicity, attractiveness, and refinement of the user experience. But Google knows there is much about Android that pleases: more features, and fewer limitations. They’re using this allure to push the Nexus One on folks who would otherwise be naturally aligned with the iPhone.
The flow of free phones out of Google is measurable by the amount of surprising, casual-switcher chatter I’m seeing on Twitter and in blogs. I got one email from a colleague who announced, “I’m switching to a Nexus One for the week, so please use my Google Voice number to contact me.” If somebody is switching phone platforms, and they know in advance that it’s only a 1-week trial, there’s a good bet they didn’t pay for the phone.
The free-phone strategy is working, prompting fair feedback from folks who nonetheless find plenty of negatives to criticize. Justin Williams demonstrates this with his guarded praise:
“Android is certainly a capable smartphone operating system. In fact, if the iPhone never existed, it’d be pretty great.”
The fact that its greatness hinges on the iPhone not existing is a problem, but it also underscores that iPhone is the primary challenge to Android’s success. Even though Justin stops short of declaring Android a winner over iPhone, he concedes that he’ll probably keep using it until the 4G iPhone is released.
“First full day with the Nexus One. Verdict: substantially uglier, harder to use, but VASTLY more powerful than an iPhone.”
This impression from Mike fits perfectly into the marketing message from Google and its mobile allies. I barely watch any television, and even I know that evidently “Droid Does.” The world is more thuggish than frilly, more impressed by strength than finesse, and this message will work. Android is the gigantic, Dunkin Donuts Coffee Coolatta to Apple’s dainty espresso cup. Still, if you’re only going to offer a couple advantages over the iPhone, power and freedom are not poor choices.
As John Gruber points out, even if Android or another platform takes a dominant position, it doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the iPhone. Apple’s advantage, as demonstrated by the Mac, is they don’t need to serve the masses to succeed:
“Apple could positively thrive with a long-term mobile market share of, say, 20-25 percent” … “In the phone industry today — all mobile phones, not just smartphones — Nokia sells more than 10 times as many units as Apple, but Apple generates more profit.”
Playing the underdog suits Apple well. I have enjoyed, as a fan and stockholder, their success over the past several years, but it’s changed them. From a company that balanced its own ideals against the demands of developers and competitors, to one that holds a firehose to repel all naysayers.
The risk to Apple is not in losing the masses, but in losing the faithful core. In their unchallenged position, Apple made a lot of right decisions, but they also made mistakes, particularly in the form of political moves that limit what developers can distribute on the platform. These restrictions are done in the name of quality control, but anybody who has browsed the App Store knows that all this autonomy has done little to stem the flow of trashy, embarrassing apps.
What they have done is alienated developers, and ultimately deprived users of software they want to see on the platform. My fear is these botched decisions are hurting Apple, but they aren’t feeling it. Pain is a gift: the signal that prevents a burned finger tip from becoming a body engulfed in flames. Apple is numb from success, and I hope the emerging competition from Google and others will re-sensitize them to the threat of failure.
Google’s Android is the best challenge yet to the political and technical decisions made by Apple for its iPhone and related products. I welcome the challenge, and look forward to Apple’s scrappier, revitalized retaliation.