Daily Archives: October 28, 2009

Slippery Analogies in Today’s Smartphone Wars

Over at Betanews, Joe Wilcox has written a provocatively titled column: “iPhone cannot win the smartphone wars.”

His thesis? Well, the title says it all. I encourage you to read it, but I also encourage you to think critically about it. As I read it, criticisms and objections sprung readily to mind.

Here’s the thing: Wilcox might well be right in his central argument that the licensees and the ecosystem supporting Google’s Android will push it to market dominance over Apple’s iPhone. The future, as we all know, is unwritten.

That said, his reasoning for why it will happen could be partly or entirely wrong. What’s more, Android’s success is more likely to come at the expense of Microsoft than of Apple.

The biggest problem I have with Wilcox’s argument is that he draws heavily on analogies that seem, at least to these eyes, strained. If comparisons are slippery, analogies are like black ice: Their calm surface masks underlying uncertainty. (Yes, I am aware that I just used a simile to cast doubt on analogies. Just play along and enjoy the show.)

Wilcox’s key analogy is that the iPhone and the Android are latter-day reincarnations of the Macintosh and the DOS/Windows PCs of the 80s and 90s.

He posits that Microsoft’s more-open DOS/Windows platform attracted a juggernaut ecosystem that overpowered Apple’s relatively closed Macintosh. Where he stretches the truth, and where the analogy loses its traction, is in his strong suggestion that Apple had built a compelling application advantage over the DOS/Windows hoard that was comparable to the more than 85,000 iPhone applications that are available today at the App Store. That just isn’t so.

Oh, Apple got off to a great start in desktop publishing, sure, but it did not have the broad base of application support that the iPhone has today. I see the logical symmetry, the theoretical consistency, that Wilcox wishes to impose on today’s events — that the license-based operating-system approach of Microsoft in the 80s and 90s is comparable to the license-based approach that Google is taking with Android on mobile devices — but the comparison isn’t entirely apt and the past-performance charts of Windows’ ascent do not foreordain Android’s path to riches.

There is no way that anybody can suggest, with statistical evidence to support their claims, that Apple ever had the established application dominance in the PC world that it holds today in the mobile space. The advantage Apple holds today, while not insurmountable, is much greater. It needs to be taken seriously.

I am not arguing that Android won’t be a market success. I think there’s one licensable mobile operating system that will rise to prominence, if not outright leadership, in the smartphone market. I don’t think that mobile operating system is Windows Mobile, which is staggering around in a stupor; nor do I think it will be Symbian, which is opening up, sort of, but is strongly controlled by a vendor (Nokia) that proffers its own handsets and is not universally trusted by potential licensees. (Then, of course, there is Symbian’s relatively sclerotic condition as a mobile operating system, requiring more cosmetic surgery and under-the-hood overhauls than the nearly-as-creaky Blackberry platform.) Like Nokia, Symbian isn’t going away, but nor is it on the cusp of a renaissance.

So, by default, we have Google’s Android, blessed by circumstance and perhaps by merit as the only viable licensable mobile operating system for handset OEMs to ride into the smartphone marketplace. You’ll notice, by the way, that most of the Android OEMs are or were licensees of Windows Mobile. The big loser from Android’s rise will be Microsoft, at least initially.

In summary, then, I am not saying Wilcox is entirely wrong. He’s probably right in asserting that Android will be a force with which to be reckoned, provided that Google maintains its commitment to the endeavor. Where he’s wrong, I believe, is in his assessment that Apple’s iPhone will follow in the footsteps of the Mac from the 80s and 90s.

In its breadth and depth of application support, its mainstream popular appeal, its brand cache — really, by every tangible and intangible measurement — the iPhone has gone well past any measure of success that the old Macintosh enjoyed.

Besides, information-technologies markets — not to mention Apple itself — have evolved since the era of synthesizer bands.