Google Android’s Soft Target

In mobile operating systems, and particularly the fast-growing smartphone neighborhood, many observers foresee a cage-match showdown between Apple, with its iPhone, and Google with Android. Some wonder whether Google’s Android will “kill” Apple’s iPhone.

I think they’re missing the point.

Apple controls nearly ever aspect of the iPhone, from its hardware design through to the approval process for applications that can be offered on Apple’s App Store. Even the most ardent open-systems proponents would have to concede that Apple’s approach has been commercially successful and that the iPhone has been enormously popular.

At last count, there are 85,000 applications available on the App Store. The iPhone and its entertainment-device sibling, the iPod Touch, are used for practically every purpose imaginable for a mobile device. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll recognize that the iPhone will continue to find favor with a large number of users well into the future.

So, if Apple’s franchise is relatively secure, who will Google’s Android hurt the most?

Let’s think about it. Apple owns and tightly controls its own smartphone operating system, as does RIM with its business-messaging Blackberry. Nokia has its quasi-open Symbian, which is looking a little long in the tooth and rough around the edges, definitely vulnerable to market-share erosion. Palm has its Pre, loaded up with the nascent webOS, which again is a single-vendor integrated solution. The jury is out on the Pre, but Palm’s fate is essentially in its own hands.

But which mobile vendor looks most like Google? Which vendor offers a mobile operating system to third-party handset and smartphone vendors of all shapes and sizes?

It’s Microsoft, of course, with its Windows Mobile, the latest version of which has just been soundly thrashed by reviewers.

Yes, one could quibble that Windows Mobile is a closed environment and Google Android is open. Still, the fact remains that both license their mobile operating systems to third-party handset vendors. Neither has its own handset. They compete directly with one another for the handset real estate of third-party vendors who do not have mobile operating systems of their own.

Now let’s look at Google’s early Android licensees: Motorola, Acer, HTC, LG, Samsung. What do they have in common? Give up? Each one also is or was a licensee of Windows Mobile.

That means that each vendor that shifts a handset from Windows Mobile to Google Android contributes to a corresponding market-share loss for Microsoft and a market-share gain for Google. If these vendors enjoy more commercial success with their Android handsets than they had with their Windows Mobile phones, it’s likely they’ll never return to the Microsoft fold.

For Android to be reasonably successful out of the gate, Google need only ensure that it converts as many Microsoft licensees to its mobile OS as possible. To achieve that objective, Google also will have to ensure that developers build great applications for its platform, and that it establishes and maintains strong business and technical relationships with the handset vendors.

Google Android will not have to take share from Apple’s iPhone at all – not initially, anyway. That’s a good thing, too, because the Apple mobile franchise is pretty strong.

Google is wise to start its mobile march by exploiting a soft target. They don’t come much softer than Windows Mobile.

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