Android as a Bottom-Up Platform

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.

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2 Responses to Android as a Bottom-Up Platform

  1. john b says:

    I think the smart phone world shows that top-down and bottom-up approaches can coexist.

    I think Android is likely to take over the bulk of the market, because it will be (already is) better at a lot of things than iOS, and those are the things that most people and companies care about. But that doesn’t mean Android is ever going to be as good at the things that iOS is good at–finicky attention to detail, seamless integration (provided you do things the Right Way), etc. (All of those features that get derided by people with different values as eye candy, “marketing,” and elitism.)

    This link I got from Gruber best illustrates the differences between iOS and Android, I think:

    When I’m using any technology, those jagged edges infuriate me. While I’m techy enough to have relied on Slackware and then Gentoo as my OS for a long time, I jumped over to OS X as soon as it was feasible. To the greatest extent feasible, I want my experience of technology to be, to paraphrase Merlin Mann, catholic and mediated. For me, bottom up platforms become a time sink of fiddling and hacking–I’d rather keep the hot rod in the garage to play with on weekends, and drive to work in a Civic.

    (Incidentally, you’ll know from my email that I work for, and with, groups that are very pro-“openness”: my view on that policy question is that it shouldn’t be *illegal* to jailbreak or install a custom OS on your hardware–if you paid cash money for a closed device, it should be up to you to open it up and void your warranty. Open devices are an essential part of the tech ecosystem, but that’s different than saying that all devices must be open, or that people should only use open devices.)

  2. Jack says:

    I agree with this from the standpoint of ‘open-ness’. I have been a long time supporter of Apple products. Mostly because of their ‘coolness’. I even had a lot of converts to Mac after I got an iBook. But the more I messed with it, the more I began to think, ‘Why can’t I get this same type of performance, stability, ‘coolness’ on a PC?’ That’s when I started looking into Linux. I was already impressed by other ‘open source’ apps like Firefox and, and I’m a professional geek, so I knew I could find something that was suitable. Boy, was I wrong! At first. At that stage in the game, Linux was not ready for the desktop yet. There was still a long way to go.

    Then, a few years ago, I stumbled upon Ubuntu and I have never looked back. For me, they were one of the few who made using Linux easy for the ‘average user’. Because of that, I completely bought into the whole philosophy as well. Open source is the way forward. And when I saw the iPad, I knew it in my bones. All of life is full of collaboration. We are not alone in this thing. It took a lot of other people to make me who I am today. And it will be all of us working together to go forward. Even Apple has a lot of developers making their products. It’s all collaboration.

    I stated all of that to say that I have an iPhone 3Gs from work and my personal phone is an HTC Aria running Android 2.1 and HTC Sense. I won’t be owing any Apple products any time soon. My family, on the other hand, is a different story.

    Peace be with you,


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