Tuesday, September 25, 2012

iPhone vs. Android? Seriously?

I just had a brief and interesting conversation with a friend on Facebook about the usual iPhone vs. Android debate. This time it was different, though, because I don't think either of us exhibited any measure of "fanboyism" and instead just had a fairly calm and mature discussion on the topic. I know, what the hell, right?

But it left me thinking about the whole debate from a 10,000-foot view. It's all the usual stuff as you'd expect. Apple just released a new product, the market is abuzz, the sales are soaring, and everybody who doesn't ride that train is touting their own warez as being superior in various ways. The argument is tired, but it's important.

An interesting statement was made, though. "Android is working its way into everything." It reminded me of the various pie charts we've all seen over the past few quarters, watching Android's install base creep up past the iOS install base. And now Android fans love that pie chart. Because it proves that their system is winning, right?

Doesn't it? Or... does anybody really care?

Sure, Android has the larger install base. And it will continue to have that. But so what? Where are the profits? Where is the brand recognition? Does anybody who owns an Android device know or care what Android is? Or that Google is behind it? They don't call it Android, they call it by the device name. Take that same pie chart and add the dividing lines between the actual devices, then which piece is bigger?

On the other hand, when somebody owns an iPhone they know it's an iPhone. They know it's Apple. They know that they want to buy other things from Apple. They go to an Apple store and talk with Apple people about the Apple products that they're buying from Apple. The brand is right there in everything they do. And so are the profits.

Six years ago, Apple pulled a new product out of their collective ass. They conjured it out of thin air. Quite literally any competitor in that space could have done the same thing. Microsoft, Google, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Blackberry, Palm, anybody. But they didn't. Apple did. And that one product unquestionably turned the mobile phone market on its ear. Overnight everybody suddenly had a lot of catching up to do.

And they've caught up. Good for them. Competition is a good thing. Well, at least the technology has caught up. But the money sure hasn't. Look at what Apple had going at the time...

Rewind six to eight years and look at the iPod. How close was that to 100% market saturation for the MP3 player consumer base? It was a household word, for God's sake. There were tons of other MP3 players out there, but who cared? They were all "non-iPods." The iPod was the market leader by a wide margin. That one simple product revolutionized and dominated the MP3 player market.

Then Apple rode that capital into the iTunes Music Store. The music industry in general was a bit more complex and had bigger players in it, but Apple still rocked that boat. The people had spoken, and what they said was that they wanted to download music. Everybody else in the industry fought the market, while Apple capitalized on it. They opened up the iTunes Music Store, told the music industry that there's a new set of rules in town, and the market went with it. Profits soared.

Then Apple rode that capital into the iPhone. This one single product has since dwarfed the entire corporate empire of Apple's longest running rival, Microsoft. And it didn't take long for that to happen, as opposed to the decades Microsoft has been riding the enormous former gap between the two. And again, it was a revolutionary product. Again, overnight everybody had a lot of catching up to do.

And while everybody was catching up in that market, Apple had a few more tricks up their sleeves. Next in line was the Macbook Air. Sure, it didn't have quite the impact that the iPhone had. Not by a long shot. But what did it do to the ultra-light laptop market? Was there even an ultra-light laptop market before that? Sure there was, but it wasn't serious. Then that Air came out, and it was beautiful. The price was at a premium though, mostly because it was the first of its kind and the technology (SSDs anyone?) was pretty pricey at the time. And what has the market done since then? Have you looked at Dell's ultra-light laptops recently? They look remarkably similar to Airs. Everybody's does. Because they're playing catch up.

Ok, let's let that market play catch up for a while. In the meantime, we've got an iPad to release. A what now? An iPad. You know that fledgling tablet market that everybody's been trying to open up for years? Apple opened it up. Wide. And dominated it. Just as revolutionary to the tablet market as the iPhone was to the mobile phone market, the iPad quickly became the standard against which all others would be measured. And all others have been playing catch up ever since. Have you used any of those "competing" tablets? Most of them are pretty awful. And so another entire market/industry was turned on its ear.

I'll grant you that the iPhone 5 isn't revolutionary. It's a pretty standard upgrade from the iPhone 4S. (I'm still buying one, of course, mainly because I don't have a 4S. I have a 4. And the difference between the 4 and the 5 is staggering.) I'll grant you that Android has a wider install base. I'll grant you that Windows 8 and Windows RT are exciting and innovative. (About time, Microsoft. The last time this happened was Windows 95.) I'll fully stipulate that Apple didn't revolutionize any markets or turn any industries on their ear this year.

But, again, so what? Do you really expect them to change the world every year? Feel entitled much? Ok, so maybe this post reads like Apple fanboyism, and maybe the language I've used supports that. I'll admit to being a fan of Apple products. I enjoy the brand, and I'm fairly loyal to it. And isn't that the point? Don't take my word for it, don't even take those various install base pie charts' words for it. Listen to the one thing we're all in this for... Listen to the money. Riding wave after wave of revolutionary product, building a line-up that dominates everything it touches and a brand that permeates the very lives of its legions of customers, Apple has risen to become the most valuable corporate entity in the history of capitalism.

If that isn't the bottom line, what is?

So, sure, Apple didn't innovate much this year. Their captain died at the helm. Wouldn't it be somewhat noble of us to grant them quarter before continuing the fight? Ok, while that was a nice analogy (and I've been looking for an opportunity to work "granting quarter" into a conversation for a while now), it doesn't really matter. They're still riding the biggest wave around.

This year they're leaning pretty heavily on the brand and the marketing. So? They built that wave, let them ride it for a moment. They're still on top. A single product release didn't send shockwaves rippling through the industry, but it's a bit early to be sounding the death knell for anybody sitting on that kind of capital. The anti-Microsoft crowd (myself included, of course) has been trying to toll that bell for years. But that mountain of money is tough to move. And cute little toys like Linux just don't have the market force for move it.

Speaking of Linux, isn't that what Android is made of? Ah, yes, that's what we were talking about. Android devices vs. Apple devices. Or, again, a vast sea of varied devices vs. a unified and immensely successful brand. Is that really a competition?

Technologically there are plenty of devices which compete with or even surpass Apple's devices, at least by some measures. Maybe not all, but some. I've still yet to find one that has the same... je ne sais quoi... as Apple's devices. They compete or even surpass on a piece here and there, but you'd be hard pressed to demonstrate one that presents as compelling an overall experience. I guess the price points help with that, though. The competing ones are cheaper. So if you want something with a better Feature X than an iDevice, you can find one at a better price. As long as Feature X is all you care about, I guess.

But I'll say again... so what?

Remember that scene at the end of Pirates Of Silicon Valley when Steve Jobs realized that Bill Gates had beaten him to market saturation?  That Microsoft had won?
Steve Jobs: We're better than you are! We have better stuff.
Bill Gates: You don't get it, Steve. That doesn't matter!
My how the tables have turned.


  1. Why do you care whether a company succeeds or fails? I can't understand being a fan of a company or brand. You realize you're just a fan of their marketing, right? Their messaging and psychology has worked so well on you that you've personified the message into an entity you can love.

    1. I don't care if they succeed or fail. But when people claim that "Apple is failing because they didn't innovate this time" or "Android is better, this pie chart proves it" they're kind of missing the big picture. Apple isn't failing. Not even close. Their products sell.

      It's one thing to sit in one's basement and post on Slashdot and the like about how Apple sucks because one can't tinker with their OS. It's another thing to have actual business sense and realize that Apple doesn't _need_ to convince everyone that they're better. They're not trying to be better. They're trying to sell products and make money. And they're succeeding.

      I am a fan of their marketing, yes. Not in the sense that fanaticism is really my thing, but in the sense that I admire the simplicity and success of it. As a general participant in the overall tech industry, I find lessons to be learned from the successes of others.

      I particularly enjoy the fairly consistent styling they apply to their products. (Skeuomorphism is aesthetically pleasing to me.) Microsoft seems to have taken a similar lesson to heart and "the style formerly known as Metro" is poised to work pretty well for them. (The new MySpace is jumping on that train right away, and it looks beautiful.)

      Accuse me of fanboyism all you like, it makes little difference to me. I bought a product and I enjoyed that product. So I bought similar products from the same supplier, and have continued to enjoy them. If being a fanboy means that I get to own things that are pleasing to me and provide me with the features and services that I want, sign me up.