This article is intended to be a commentary of my personal opinions on the market success of smart phones. My opinion and knowledge comes from following industry news over the last couple of years as well as talking with every day people. I realize I leave out a worldwide favorite Nokia, but I am not familiar with their phones.
In this opinion piece I talk about Apple’s consistent user experience and a break from carrier tie-ins as the reason for its success. I also talk about user choice and US iPhone exclusivity as a reason why Android OS was able to grow in market share. A healthy level of competition is needed to keep these phone makers innovative, which will typically benefit the consumer.
The iPhone came out and had one of the biggest changes in hardware seen on a phone. Before it, you had your BlackBerry and Windows Mobile of the world in the smart phone market. The BlackBerry market was, and in most part still is, around because of enterprise needs. It is the best phone for data encryption and remote wipe as well as corporate email. As soon as an email is received at a company it is on the BlackBerry device. BlackBerry also had BBM, which is still very popular amongst BlackBerry users. Windows Mobile was a simple smart phone OS that primarily used keyboard and a stylus to interact with it. You could also open up office documents on your phone on the go and get email sent to the phone. [The successor to Windows Mobile was the re-branded Windows Phone 7, which was completely re-designed and engineered.]
The theme that I see with smart phones prior to the iPhone was business functionality. When the iPhone came along, it brought with it a different way to interact with phones: the touchscreen. A touchscreen was not a brand new idea but Apple left out the need for a stylus and left out the physical keyboard. This new approach to the user interaction was part of the appeal of the original iPhone.
The iPhone also brought with it a new idea of removing all carrier-branding. Previously, carriers would brand the hardware that you bought as well as loading software that they got paid to preload on your phones. They would also impose hardware requirements and rules for phones, i.e. no Wi-Fi on a non- smart phone. When the iPhone came around, Apple wanted complete control of its platform, which included no carrier branding or bloat-ware on the iPhone. That means you didn’t have to see AT&T’s logo on your brand new phone and no Need for Speed demo game preloaded on the phone.
The reason Apple’s iPhone then expanded and took off as a mass-market phone was because of the App Store, which wasn’t launched until a year after the original iPhone. The iTunes stronghold also helped the phone in sales, as well as the simplicity of syncing your phone to iTunes. The iPhone took off as a casual gaming device when companies developed the easy to use gaming applications only for iPhone. It provided a consistent experience across all of their iPhone devices, as the different generations are basically similar with slight improvements from year-to-year.
The success of the iPhone made carriers realize that they cannot strictly control the high-end handsets anymore and still be a leader in the industry. This was particularly a wakeup for Verizon. They had the opportunity to have the exclusive iPhone contract but turned it down because Apple demanded such freedom from the carrier. After they saw the success of the iPhone on AT&T, they opened up to pushing Google’s Android OS. Initially, they spent over $100 million on the Droid Does ad campaign that targeted the weaknesses of the iPhone OS. This ad campaign combined with the AT&T exclusivity agreement for the iPhone helped Android OS take off on other carriers.
Android then took off because it provided a good user experience with the touchscreen interface. Handset makers also have the option to differentiate between models by changing the hardware. Some models have physical keyboards while others only have touchscreen. You can get different screen sizes on your device. The front-facing camera came out on the HTC EVO 4G before it was available on the iPhone 4, and someone else doesn’t need another Apple product to video chat with.
Some critics call this fragmentation, but it is similar to the PC market. There is freedom of choice from hardware makers to implement the software in unique ways. It provides the ability of the end user to decide what is right for them, where as Apple creates an entirely closed ecosystem where they control the user experience to the fullest; well, besides the mass complaints of AT&T service in highly populated areas that Apple can’t control.
Android has its own problems, too. The music experience can vary on different devices and there is no easy iTunes-like syncing software from Google. Some features are hidden in the operating system and can be tricky to find. They can definitely improve the user experience in Android. This is something they are trying to address with Honeycomb where they hired former Palm VP Matias Duarte. I will admit that the Honeycomb tablet demos looked very promising.
These are different philosophies from the two most popular smart phone OS makers in the United States. Apple has a closed system that has one of the best and consistent experiences across its platforms while Google has a more open system where handset makers provide choice to consumers. There are some other possible contenders in the long run of the game (Palm/HP and Windows Phone) but they have yet to prove that US consumers are interested.
In the end, I think competition is natural and good to have. I don’t know when Apple would have implemented multi-tasking in iPhone OS (now called iOS) if it weren’t for the constant barrage of Droid commercials touting that specific feature. There is plenty of room for improvements in both iOS and Android OS, which will hopefully benefit the consumer in the end.