Over at Ars Technica, John Siracusa has a good summary of the state of the mobile market. Google’s Android operating system has been firing on all cylinders recently. Some analysts have Android-based phones taking the lead in sales in recent months. The installed base for the iPhone is still a lot larger, but the gap is closing.
Siracusa runs through some of Android’s key advantages. Probably the most important is that all four major wireless carriers in the US are offering Android phones, while the iPhone is only available from AT&T. Google is partnering with a variety of hardware vendors, while Apple is manufacturing all of its phones itself.
It’s fun to play armchair quarterback and speculate on which factors will most help or hinder the development of the competing mobile platforms. But I think it makes more sense to think about the big picture. Apple’s basic strategy is a top-down one: they’re trying to make the best phone, partner with the best carrier, allow only the best applications in the iTunes store, force developers to use the best development tools, and so forth. Steve Jobs is a pretty smart guy, and he has a lot of talented people working for him, so it’s not surprising that the result has been pretty good. But it’s also inherently brittle: the iPhone will only succeed if Apple makes the right call on all of these decisions. If Apple screws up even a single decision (say, comes out with a defective phone or chooses the wrong carrier), the whole platform suffers.
In contrast, because Android phones are available on dozens of devices, from four different carriers, with relatively permissive app store policies, its platform is much more resilient. It’s not a big deal if one hardware vendor produces a dud because there are lots of other phones to choose from. Google doesn’t care which wireless carriers do well since they’re all selling Android phones.
Developing a new platform is a discovery process. It’s a safe bet that people will find exciting new uses for cell phones, but nobody can predict exactly what they’re going to be. By working with many partners, Google maximizes the odds that Android will be able to fill whatever niches that emerge. In contrast, Apple has shut out many companies that have tried to join the iPhone bandwagon. If one of those companies discovers a “killer app,” Apple will miss out.
I think these weaknesses have become a lot more obvious in the year since I started writing about the iPhone app store. A top-down strategy works well for a company that’s pioneering a new product category. Central planning can bring together all the pieces necessary for a successful product and put them all in a shiny, easy-to-use package. But as the smart phone market matures, customers get more demanding. They don’t just want a generic smart phone, they want one that’s tailored to their specific needs. Google has dozens of partners that are helping them serve the entire smartphone market. Apple is going alone, trying to build a single product to serve every user. It’s not surprising that Apple is losing ground.
Disclosure: I’m an intern at Google this summer. This post doesn’t reflect the views of Google, nor is it based on any confidential information.