The Smartphone Wars: The world turned upside down

It’s always a good day when you get to wield the Righteous Cluebat of Reality straight into the teeth of dogmatists and downshouters – and no, I’m not talking about being Andrew Breitbart, though I do like to think I’m at least as capable of upending smug certitudes as he is. Today’s cluebatting concerns two developments that, taken together, put paid to a lot of negative mythology around Android.

In our first swing of the Righteous Cluebat, we cite the news that Samsung just shipped an instance of its new flagship phone to a CyanogenMod dev with the invitation “Get CM7 working, please?” Heh. So much for the theory that having boob-baited the geeks with illusory openness, the handset makers and carriers were collusively scheming to lock us all in again. Yes, there is a school of geek paranoia out there that maintains Android to be a nefarious scam aimed at, I dunno, cramming us back into the carrier-controlled silos of pre-Android days?

Me, I’m wondering what took Samsung so long. I’ve pointed out before that the interests of the handset makers and cell carriers are not identical. The handset makers want to increase the value of their product to the people who actually buy them, and a non-boot-locked CyanogenMOD-ready phone is more valuable to a customer than a locked one is (duh, because he customer has an upgrade path even if the maker end-of-lifes it). Boot-locking is a customer-control mechanism that is only valuable to the carriers, and an economically rational handset maker will only ship boot-locked phones under carrier pressure.

As with HTC’s recent reversal back to shipping unlocked phones, this move is a sign that carriers’ ability to dictate terms of trade that are actually injurious to the handset makers (and their customers!) is fast vanishing. This correlates with the rise of Android, the accelerating decay of the carrier contract system, the continuing fall in smartphone prices, and the increase in customers buying handsets through WalMart and other third parties rather than the carrier stores.

All these trends are mutually reinforcing, and simple analysis of incentives tells us they will lead to a world of smartphones that are both inexpensive and fully open to personalization, rooting, and modding. While it may be that only a small percentage of smartphone customers will explicitly use this capability, the carrier control it denies will be nearly as important as the individual control it affirms.

Our second swing of the Righteous Cluebat concerns the news from WWDC about the new features Apple has announced for the upcoming iOS version 5. Trade press reaction is well summarized by this story: Apple’s iOS 5 Directly Lifts Features from Android.

Oh, how delicious a headline that is. After four years of unceasing Apple-cultist insistence that Android is a pallid knockoff of the iPhone and all true goodness in user interfaces flows from Apple, iOS 5 is now reduced to copying actual UI innovations from Android. Mind you, I’m not saying they shouldn’t have done it; the particular lift everyone is noticing most, Android’s event-notification system, is one of the best features of the Android UI. But even the normally Apple-friendly trade press found it pretty hard to point at anything interesting in the iOS 5 announcement that isn’t an obvious lift from Android.

To say that this bodes poorly for Apple’s self-positioning as the master innovator and premium product is to belabor the obvious. In fact, the iPhone is now chasing Android’s taillights in every area – behind in market share, behind in 4G/LTE support, and now behind in UI as well. It’s not easy to see how Apple will sustain its margins unless the delayed iPhone 5 has something novel and spectacular going for it.

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