Android threats from Verizon iPhone, Windows Phone 7
October 12th, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
Enthusiastic backers of Google’s Android project are excited to see a increasing market share for the platform, but the figures seem neither sustainable nor relevant as two new competitors enter the smartphone marketplace.
The Verizon iPhone
The first is a CDMA version of iPhone 4, which is expected to arrive at the beginning of 2011 (that’s less than three months away). Apple is reportedly shopping the new CDMA model to a variety of carriers in China and India, but the most important market for the device will be Verizon Wireless in the US.
That’s not because Verizon has an astonishing number of subscribers; it’s because Verizon acts as a protected enclave of Android sales. Outside of the US, Android has very limited relevance because it competes directly against the iPhone, which means there’s simply no fertile ground to sprout in.
But existing iPhones couldn’t take root on Verizon’s CDMA network, leaving a wide open environment that demanded an iPhone-like device that needn’t necessarily be as good as the iPhone because there were plenty of subscribers who couldn’t or weren’t going to switch.
The Battle of Verizon
It will be interesting to see how well the new CDMA iPhone competes against the handful of existing Android models currently available on Verizon; unfortunately, there won’t be any way to do a control group testing the outcome of an earlier iPhone entry by Apple on Verizon.
If the iPhone does very well on Verizon and beats back Android gains, it will be hard to argue that Android is competitive at all.
On the other hand, if customers continue to choose Android devices and the iPhone only exists as a minor player on Verizon’s network, it will likely be written up in the history books as a grand mistake by Apple to wait so long in its exclusive partnership with AT&T.
Anything in the middle and we’ll have more disputed agreements about the actual merits of Android and the level of brilliance of Apple. However, there’s reason to believe that Apple will do well at Android’s expense. The main reason is Verizon itself.
If Verizon was really pleased with Android offerings, it wouldn’t be seeking to negotiate concessions with Apple to carry the iPhone. Verizon isn’t at all acting like PC makers in the late 90s who found the Mac OS irrelevant; it’s acting like a big box retailer of the past decade that already carries cheap MP3 players but desperately wants to sell the iPod.
Verizon and Microsoft
The second threat to Android comes from Windows Phone 7, but this threat isn’t going to debut at Verizon. The carrier has gone out of its way to not support Microsoft’s WP7, and with good reason. It was Verizon that partnered with Microsoft on KIN, which was essentially WP7 in an early larva stage.
KIN failed so miserably that Verizon was left hating Microsoft for dragging it into its catastrophically incompetent fiasco. That turn of events also likely played a part in accelerating the alignment of Verizon behind Apple’s intent to deliver a CDMA iPhone.
Without WP7 debuting on Android’s primary carrier, Google’s Windows Mobile-killer platform will get a reprieve from Microsoft’s last gasp efforts to resurrect its ailing smartphone platform and recapture territory. But Microsoft is unlikely to make any real progress anyway. Instead, the arrival of WP7 will really just demonstrate how bad Google is at doing something it’s not experienced at.
The third party candidate
In other words, WP7 will make Android look bad without really achieving any great success on its own, ultimately acting in the role of a third party candidate to erode the anti-iPhone sentiment that has been focused on Android. After all, if you only have two options, people will generally get extreme in their support of one or the other.
But when you introduce a third that could appeal to some members of one side more than the other, you split and weaken the interest in that option. Windows Enthusiasts loved to hate the Mac until Linux began to appear; then you had a significant number of former Windows users who were drawn to the advantages of a Unix-like operating system, something Apple later leveraged under Mac OS X, inhaling lots of interest from former users who had never historically been interested in the Mac.
In smartphones, the opposite occurred. Windows Mobile has never been a real favorite, but Android seemed to deliver an Apple competitor that PC and Microsoft fans felt comfortable rallying around in their hate for Apple. The problem is that Google has done a poor job in actually delivering a great platform, largely because Google has no experience in building or maintaining a platform.
Now that Microsoft is entering the ring again, interest in Android is splintering between those who like Microsoft in general and those who like centralized control of a platform, deflating the giddy support for Android that had ballooned under the frustrated sighs of people huffing and puffing about the success of Apple’s iPhone.
As I’ve pointed out before, the more competitors Apple has, the better it does. When it faces a monoculture of competition (as it did with Windows on the PC, or as it has this year as Android emerged as the only competitor in smartphones), it’s more difficult for the company to show off its strong points.
Google vs itself
In addition to the debut of Apple on Verizon and the entry of WP7 on the GSM carriers outside of Verizon, Android also continues to face problems created by Google. The core strengths of Android are supposed to be its openness and status as a freely available operating system. But those aspects are also its core flaws.
When adherents talk about Android’s market share, they forget that Android isn’t a product, it’s a technology portfolio. Android’s popularity doesn’t benefit Google in the way that Windows made Microsoft extremely rich. Google gives Android away, and in some cases pays hardware makers to use it. Pointing out that lots of phones being sold use Android is like saying that a large number of smartphones are black. So what?
As soon as white or silver or woodgrain becomes more fashionable, devices will shift. The same applies to their core OS. The problem for Google is that, unlike Microsoft, it has done little to establish Android as a de facto standard or necessary piece of the puzzle. Had Google pushed a strong, centralized UI the way Microsoft did for Windows, at least customers would begin to recognize “Android” as something they thought they needed. They do not today.
Microsoft’s unification of branding, UI, and APIs meant that PCs couldn’t really be sold without Windows. Today, anyone can put together their own OS and deliver a phone, just as Palm/HP, Nokia, Samsung, and RIM’s Blackberry are doing. Google hasn’t established a strong platform, it just co-opted Java and made a half-hearted attempt to set up an app store that hasn’t achieved the same sort of industry-changing influence as Apple has.
Partly, that’s because Google isn’t catering to customers who actually want to pay for things. It’s attracting users who don’t want to pay for anything, and want the freedom to bootleg and hack. That demographic is not really attractive to commercial development for obvious reasons.
There’s no reason preventing Motorola or HTC from shifting to another operating system once Android begins to lose its allure, just as there was little holding either back from switching from Windows Mobile to Android a couple years ago.
Of course, the other problem for Android is that Oracle is now focusing on Java as a core asset, following its acquisition of Sun. And that means it is not just taking legal efforts to force Google to pay for its use of Java-related IP, but also that it is partnering with IBM to develop open source Java independent of the now to be abandoned Harmony, the software Google borrowed for Android.
End of the excitement
For these reasons, I’m still predicting 2010 will be the year where the giddy excitement about Android will fade as the platform becomes the utilitarian way for second rung hardware makers to dump out lower end products. Its wondrous premise as a free and open operating system has collapsed as users realize that it’s no more open than the carrier and hardware maker wish it to be.
Android phones have all the same vendor locks and bloatware as Windows PCs, but unlike Windows, Android doesn’t deliver a unified UI, nor do Android phones of the same release date even all exist on the same version of the platform. Nor can you easily update the software on a given device any earlier than your carrier and hardware maker choose to support.
Android isn’t a platform, it’s a technology portfolio; a codebase. The nebulous fantasy of Android competing against the iPhone as real product is evaporating, leaving a rather dull layer of reality behind.
Meanwhile, Apple continues to face a series of half-baked products that will likely enable it to maintain a strong lead, while Microsoft’s late entry with WP7 butts up against the reality that it’s hard to compete against an established player with a me-too product with little novelty, a lot like the Zune from a couple years ago.