The responses to my last several posts on the smartphone wars (The iPhone 4: Too little, too late; More dispatches from the smartphone wars; Steve Jobsâ€™ Snow Job; Flattening the Smartphone Market; Nowâ€™s a bad time to be an Apple fanboyâ€¦; Android Rising) demonstrate that many of my readers continue to miss the real stakes in the smartphone wars and the real point of my analyses of them.
It’s not about whether or not Apple will be crushed. It’s not about who makes the “best” products, where “best” is measured by some interaction between the product and the speaker’s evaluation of the relative importance of various features and costs. It’s about what the next generation of personal computing platforms will be. Down one fork they’ll be open, hackable, and user-controlled. Down the other they’ll be closed, locked down, and vendor-controlled. Though there are others on each side of this struggle, in 2010 it comes down to whether Apple or Android wins the race to over 50% smartphone market share; after that point, network effects will become self-reinforcing until the next technology disruption.
When I took my first hard look at the smartphone wars (Why Android matters), I observed that “…Google itself doesnâ€™t have to win or end up with control of anything for the future to play out as described. Itâ€™s not even necessary that Android itself be the eventual dominant cellphone platform. All they have to do is force the competitive conditions so that whatever does end up dominating is as open as Android is.” This remains the single most important fact behind Google’s strategy. It means they’re playing to achieve an Internet that is as friction-free and commoditized as possible, with no one else able to extract tolls or rents that would cut into their future ad revenue. It also means they don’t have to make a single dime from Android licensing to win – in fact, it makes business sense for them to spend engineering dollars for the short-term benefit of telephone carriers in order to keep smartphones out of anyone else’s control.
The good news – from both Google’s and the consumer’s point of view – is not so much that Android is winning. It’s that the closed-source proprietary alternatives to Android are all losing. WinMobile is a joke. The least implausible candidates to come out of left field would be WebOS and MeeGo, the former mostly open source and the latter entirely.
At this point Apple’s iPhone OS is the only viable champion of a bad outcome. But Apple does not have to go into receivership for the long-term good to prevail. If Apple is content to be what it has been in the PC space – a boutique vendor building its notion of the “best” products, with high margins and a single-digit market share – that’s not a problem. In that future, we could leave the fashion victims and art fags to their insistence that Apple does the slickest “user experience” and that’s all that matters, without worrying that their cult-like devotion will cause problems for the rest of us.
What must not be allowed to happen is a recurrence of single-vendor closed-source monopoly, only with better industrial design and PR than Microsoft’s. That would be bad…but it also looks almost vanishingly unlikely now. The iPhone 4 was at best a very weak riposte against Android 2.2; it will keep its fanbase, but (especially in view of Apple’s failure to go multicarrier and AT&T’s recent pricing moves) almost certainly won’t regain Apple’s lost market share, let alone slow down Android as the latter hoovers up most of the user conversions from dumb phones.
Really, the fact that the Sprint EVO 4 and Nexus One even look plausible against the iPhone probably means it’s game over for any thought Apple might have entertained of owning the smartphone space. Apple fanboys who are now itching to repeat “But that’s never been what they were after…” at me for the forty-seventh-gazillionth time should just stuff it. If you’re right, that just means that Android has already won in the only sense I have ever cared about, care about now, or ever will care about before the heat-death of the universe.