Industry's Smartphone Politics Unlikely to Unseat Apple

When Apple came out with the iPhone, it changed the entire smartphone industry. Now, we're moving into the smartphone politics era: lots of players, lots of technologies and lots of opportunity for political maneuvering. Will ordinary customers care? Not likely.

Apple developed the first drop dead gorgeous smartphone with integrated hardware, software, fabulous Mac and PC integration, a supporting app store and a portfolio of UI patents. That was Phase II of the smartphone era.

iPhone 3GS

Over the weekend, we learned that Google is having HTC build a testbed smartphone, and the analysis is centered on whether that's a camel's nose under the tent of the smartphone business, possibly with T-Mobile.

Of course, some of the speculation is based on the desire to see Apple unseated or perhaps foment a war between Google and Apple. That led to the New York Times article, "With a New Phone, Google May Challenge Apple."

Independent of whether the Google phone, built by HTC, will go into production, what's more important is that we're entering a new phase, Phase III, of behind-the-scenes smartphone politics. There is now ample opportunity for maneuvering, backstabbing, double crosses, broken relationships and new alliances. Many tech writers will be tempted to surmise that troubled waters for Apple lay ahead. That's because there are so many vested interests that there's ample motivation for wanting to see Apple squander its lead in the market. It's wishful thinking.

The problem, as I see it, is that customers don't spend a lot of time paying attention to these squabbles. For example, a (hypothetical) beautiful HTC built "Nexus" phone from Google that's unlocked and available on the T-Mobile or AT&T network is going to be expensive. The brand name of Google and the Android OS isn't enough to sway customers. Only the big wireless carriers (plus Apple and RIM) have built enough wireless brand recognition to sway customers based on features, the network, and subsidized price.

Moreover, Apple isn't doing anything that would damage its iPhone business. Customers like Apple, they like buying iPhones in Apple's retail stores, they like how Apple takes care of them with things like the Genius bar and AppleCare, and no other company has been able to duplicate Apple's combination of perceived benefits.

You'll read a lot in the near future about how competitors to the Apple iPhone are scheming and maneuvering on the smartphone chessboard. There will be traps, surprises, seemingly brilliant Knight sacrifices, flank attacks, but when it comes right down to it, competitors just keep ignoring the core issues that have made the iPhone great: Apple's brand, its coolness factor, its marketing, its retail stores, Cocoa touch, the app store, the integration of hardware and software, MobileMe syncing, and Apple's creativity with the user interface.

The competition still hasn't learned its lesson. They've always been able to succeed in the past with political maneuverings, partnerships, back room deals, hidden customer contract terms and technology limitations that screwed the customer but maximized their own profits. It seems as if everyone is willing to do anything but the hard work of technology and customer development. We'll be in Phase III for awhile until they realize it isn't working against Apple.

It'll take more than a commercial Google smartphone and a lot of tech writer soap operas to unseat Apple and its brilliant leadership.

Even so, Mr. Scott Forstall, don't let this missive go to your head.