Google’s Android is spreading like wildfire. In little more than a year phones based on Google’s Android OS have gone from clumsy looking wimps to worthy Apple iphone competitors. The latest reports show that Android smartphones are selling frenetically across the globe, even eclipsing the meteoric sales of the iPhone. The success of Android is a watershed moment for advocates of open standards and open source software. It also represents a huge win for consumers. Thanks to Google, we have been saved from Apple hegemony. The playing field for innovation and consumer choice in the smartphone market has been unleashed. Long live Android, long live open source software.
Less than a year ago I was in despair, fearing that the iPhone was so far and above the rest of the smartphone market that Apple would completely dominate the field. My willingness to own an iPhone in spite of this fear was the epitome of Apple’s power. I had always hoped that Android would save us from near complete Apple domination, but a year ago things were looking pretty bleak. Compared to Apple’s hundreds of thousands of apps, Android offered a laughable market. And the best phone that Android had to offer was the bulky and clunky G1.
Fast forward to today, and all of this has changed. Phones based on Google’s Android are witnessing an incredible worldwide adoption. In May of this year Google claimed that 100,000 Android phones were being activated everyday. By August, Google CEO Eric Schmidt confirmed that daily activations had catapulted to 200,000. Recent reports indicate that daily activations are now nearing 300,000. At this rate, Android based phones will easily ship more than 100 million units over the next year. And the Andoid market for apps is absolutely flourishing, recently boasting more than 100,000 apps.
I have been an iPhone owner ever since the first iPhone was launched several years ago. As a long time linux enthusiast and open source advocate, it was difficult for me to sip the Apple Kool-Aid, but the iPhone was just so much better than everything else out there that I could not resist. The iPhone was a game changing device. Elegant, feature rich, easy to use. Most importantly the iPhone ditched physical buttons entirely and went all in with a touch screen interface. I never tried a Blackberry – I never understood the appeal of those stupid little keyboards and the crappy UI. I longed for the day that a phone would be beautiful and easy to use, and Apple delivered.
But the iPhone has always harbored a nasty dark side. The iPhone is tied to an ecosystem of apps, music, books, video, and advertisements that are all controlled by Apple. This closed model of censorship from one single company poses a very real threat to our digital freedom and holds back innovation. The world needs an open competitor, and Google’s Android is it. Android represents the future of smartphones. My next phone will be an Android.
This whole smartphone battle offers a fascinating window into the philosophy of innovation, open standards, and consumer choice. On the one hand we have Apple’s closed model in which one company controls everything. Such a model offers several compelling advantages. Only with the singular vision and tight control of an outstanding company such as Apple could such a groundbreaking innovation as the iPhone be developed. Apple’s closed model enabled the company to keep things simple and intuitive, ignore special interests, and cut out old paradigms such as the physical keyboard. I applaud Apple for giving the world a smartphone revolution. Yet even though Apple’s closed model was crucial for starting the revolution, that same model is not appropriate as the revolution carries forward.
The cracks in Apple’s “control everything” model are really starting to show recently. Apple gets to play God and deny apps to its app store based on whatever reasons it chooses. In the early days this helped to keep the nascent apps market a safe and trustworthy place to find apps. But now Apple’s control of the app market is showing its dark side. In many cases, Apple has denied apps simply because they competed with Apple’s own interests, or because they violated Apple’s moral vision about sex, decency, etc. Apple is the gatekeeper of apps in its marketplace, and if you get on the wrong side of the all mighty gatekeeper’s interests, you are SOL. On the flip side, if Apple decides it likes you and/or your app, you just might miraculously gain a position as a coveted “featured app” in the app store.
Even with its now 40,000+ employees, we also see that Apple is unable to innovate the iPhone as fast as the industry wants or needs it to. Android competitors are able to come out with dozens of hardware models per year, versus Apple’s one model per year. Android manufacturers are able to offer users more choice – different screen sizes, access to more phone networks, and a plethora of different hardware configurations. Android can cater to different market needs and demographics, producing phones like the Droid for high end consumers, but also super cheap phones for the billions of consumers with more restricted budgets in places like India.
With its open source model, any person, any company in the world can contribute to the Android software repository. Essentially Apple’s 40,000 or so employees are up against hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world. Over the long term, there is simply no way iOS can keep up with the evolution that open source Android will achieve. When it comes to a clean, intuitive interface Apple will continue to excel. But when it comes to features, Apple is at a severe disadvantage.
Apple may have started the smartphone revolution with its elegant design and its paradigm shift to ditch the buttons and go all out for the touch screen, but the torch as the dominant player in this industry is now (and should be) passed on to Android. Is Apple’s iPhone then destined to die a miserable and dejected death? Of course not. The smartphone market is still in its infancy. Barely 10% of the world’s phones are currently smartphones. In the next few years literally billions of individuals will upgrade their old school phones to smartphones, creating an enormous pie for both Android and Apple’s iPhone to take a slice of. Yet whereas just a year ago the iPhone pretty much owned the entire market, moving forward Android will be the dominant platform and the iPhone will take a back seat with an ever more niche role.
This is not to say that the open model a la Android is all perfect and wonderful. Android app developers must deal with the headache of building apps that can work on multiple versions of Android software and dozens of different versions of hardware. The UI for Android is not exactly consistent from one phone to the next, creating much confusion for developers and users. Android offers greater choice, greater flexibility, and a heck of a lot more features, but this comes at the cost of losing much of the elegance and simplicity that comes from Apple’s standardization. You simply can’t have it both ways.
History has shown us this pattern over and over again ad nauseam. The closed smartphone model (iOS) and the open smartphone model (Android) represent just the latest example of decades of similar cases: Internet Explorer (closed) vs Firefox/Chrome (open), AOL (closed) vs ISP’s (open), MySQL (open) vs Oracle (closed). Both the closed and open models have offered their relative strengths and weaknesses. In many of these cases the closed model is the early model that enables an innovative breakthrough that revolutionizes the field. Subsequently the open model then takes over as the technology matures. Smartphones appear to be exhibiting this pattern.
Notably absent from this discussion is any mention of Windows 7, Symbian, RIM, or other competitors. Their omission is intentional, for these so called players presently aren’t really players at all, and their future looks bleak. As it stands right now this is a two horse race between iOS and Android.
Although we have seen the story of closed model moving to open model many times before, it doesn’t always turn out that way. Linux has emerged as the open standard for computer servers, but has been unable to unseat Microsoft’s multi decade monopoly on the desktop. As a result, consumers have been stuck with a desktop environment that is monolithic, buggy, expensive, and severely lacking innovation.
Without Google jumping into the fray with its mighty Android it is very possible, even likely that Apple would have beaten the crap out of everyone else and achieved a Microsoft level of smartphone domination. This in fact was my very real fear just one year ago when Android appeared to be a failure and RIM, Symbian, and the rest of the gang looked like pathetic antiques. An outcome with near complete Apple dominance would have been disastrous to digital freedom and innovation within the smartphone market. Luckily for all of us, that outcome appears to have been avoided.
I wasn’t one of the brave ones that ditched their iPhones even as Apple domination seemed imminent. But the past is the past, and the future gives us the chance to make new, and better choices. When it comes time to purchase my next phone, I intend to join ranks with what I feel is the positive force in the industry and buy an Android phone. I hope you will do the same.