The iPhone vs. Google Phone: No Contest

Recently, I stopped by a local T-Mobile store, the home of the new G1 phone. This is the so-called Google phone, the mobile device with Googleis Android operating system. Many in the press have anointed the Google phone as a potential "iPhone killer." That is, a device capable of knocking the iPhone off its pedestal as the most desirable and most well-reviewed smartphone on the market. While the iPhone is not yet the overall leader in sales, itis moving along here as well; latest reports show that the iPhone has surpassed RIMis Blackberry to reach second place in smartphone rankings (and an even more recent report has the iPhone as the #1 U.S. consumer phone, besting even Motorolais RAZR).

I spent a few minutes playing with the G1. Not enough time for a review but enough to know that I was not immediately impressed. The hardware design felt "clunky" — especially the flimsy-feeling sliding of the touchscreen, needed to reveal the keyboard underneath. As for the software, it had had some impressive features (including a few that I hope to see added to the iPhone someday, such as barcode reading and application multitasking) and a decent collection of built-in apps. But it did not have a particularly intuitive user interface. I had trouble just figuring out how to access the complete list of available applications. Perhaps Iive become too comfortable with the iPhone to give the G1 a fair shake. But, as I indicated, reviewing the G1 is not really the point of this column anyway.

What I really want to talk about is this: The prediction that the G1 may be destined to overtake the iPhone for essentially the same reasons that MS-DOS (and Windows) practically managed to kill off Apple back in the 1980s and 90s. The rationale for this doomsday scenario notes that Android is an open source operating system (built on a Linux kernel) capable of running on a variety of different hardware devices. In contrast, the iPhone runs a proprietary operating system (Mac OS X) with hardware only from a single company (Apple). Eventually, so the argument goes, these Android advantages will overwhelm the iPhone, similar to how Windows overwhelmed the Mac.

This prediction is about as likely to come true as the proverbial pig flying. Letis ignore for the moment that, in the end, Windows did not kill the Mac. The Mac is now back stronger than ever, and it is Windows Vista that is struggling. Even so, Android and the G1 do not present the challenge to the iPhone that Apple faced decades ago. A RoughlyDrafted article from a couple of months ago presented a convincing case for this: "Unlike Appleis iPhone, Android phones wonit have a slick user interface developed by professional artists, nor the iPhoneis legacy of mature software development frameworks crafted over the last thirty years, nor the iPhoneis tightly integrated hardware with award winning industrial design, nor its marketing power tied into the iPod and Appleis retail stores."

I agree. That article also offered a strong argument for why the openness of Android will not play a decisive role in the future success of the Google phone, any more than Linux has replaced Windows as the dominant OS on computers. In that regard, itis worth pointing out that Windowsis success was not because it was an "open" system. It isnit any more open than Mac OS X. Actually, because of Mac OS Xis basis in UNIX, Appleis OS is probably now the more "open" of the two. True, Microsoft licenses Windows to run on a variety of hardware platforms. Apple does not do this with Mac OS X. There may be some advantages to Microsoft here (and youill continue to read articles advocating that Apple should similarly license Mac OS X). But both Windows and Mac OS X are proprietary systems.

Still, the most critical reasons that the iPhoneis success is likely to remain undiminished, despite Android, applies just as well to any other competitor that may come along:

Development time is not an issue. Back in the previous century, developers faced some serious obstacles in converting PC apps to run on a Mac. Add that to the Macis shrinking market share and many developers decided it wasnit worth the time and money. The situation with the iPhone is much different. The conversion process is much easier (recall those demos of how fast developers were able to get applications up and running even before iPhone 2.0 software was released to the public). And the iPhoneis market share is not shrinking, but growing.

The iPhone rides on the coattails of the iPod. The iPhone is an iPod at its core. And the iPod is by far the leader in the MP3 player market. The iPod in turn is linked to the iTunes Store, the #1 music retailer in the U.S. This gives the iPhone a huge advantage right out of the starting gate, one that competing phones will find difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

Apple will respond to the competition. One potential advantage of Android is that it is far less restrictive about what software is permissible. Indeed, the Android Developer Distribution Agreement states: "Google does not intend, and does not undertake, to monitor the Products or their content..." although it reserves the right to remove apps that violate obvious restrictions (such as pornographic or malware apps). I wish Apple had more of this spirit, instead of wasting its time working to prevent users from jailbreaking their phones. Googleis approach certainly undercuts Appleis argument that it needs to maintain a tight control over what apps are allowed in the App Store so as to "protect" consumers. Still, Apple made a significant concession recently when it removed many of the restrictions from the NDA (non-disclosure agreement) that iPhone developers need to sign. Developers can now talk openly about released software.

I expect that Apple will continue to do whatever is necessary to stay ahead of the competition. For the moment, however, it needs to do very little. iPhone owners are happy with the App Store and app developers are largely content with the money they are making.

Apple "gets it." The very term "iPhone killer" amounts to free advertising for Apple. It implies that, even though the iPhone has been out for little more than a year, it is already the device to beat. It is interesting to speculate on why this is so. Why, for example, isnit the iPhone described as a potential "Blackberry-killer" — especially so when you consider that the Blackberry smartphone has been around since 2002? Hereis why:

Apple succeeds because it is willing to rethink basic assumptions. Appleis strategy for success with the iPhone was not to develop a smartphone that was only marginally better than the competition. They certainly had no intention of coming up with a device that could sync with iTunes but offered little more (see: the ill-fated Motorola ROKR with iTunes). The iPhone, as with the Mac itself, emerged from a willingness to start from scratch and a desire to create the absolute best device possible. When the rules donit fit your ideas for the device, donit change your device; change the rules. Thatis what Apple did with the iPhone.

Add to that Appleis attention to design (something most other companies give too little attention) -- and you have a tough combination to beat.

With hindsight, itis often easy to see why such a strategy is the smart way to go. But few companies have the foresight to see this. Apple does.

That is how the iPod came to dominate the music and video world (remember, the iPod was far from the only MP3 player on the market when it was first released) and it is how the iPhone is similarly succeeding. And thatis why other companies wind up chasing after Apple instead of vice versa.

The iPhoneis long-term success is not guaranteed. There is still plenty of opportunity for Apple to falter in the months and years ahead. Even now, not every Apple product is a resounding winner. But, as long as Apple maintains its core strategy, I donit see the G1 phone -- or any other smartphone -- keeping the iPhone from continuing on its ascendant trajectory.