Five years ago the world was introduced to a new kind of mobile phone. Steve Jobs and his crew at Apple displayed the mobile device that would reshape our mobile experience. The iPhone, the device Steve introduced, was not the first smart phone, but it was the first smart phone that was pitched to the consumer in a way that opened imaginations. Back then, Apple’s iPhone was the one and only – they showed us how a smart phone could be used, and we loved it.
Today, Apple faces competition from several directions all vying to strip away the title of innovation leader. There are drastic differences among all of the parties, but one, fragmentation, is what I will focus on here.
iOS, Apple’s phone operating system, is singular. Most iPhone owners are running the latest version of iOS. Only those that are running the oldest devices in Apple’s fleet are prevented from using iOS in its latest iterations.
The competition, Google and Microsoft, is fragmented. Android has a multitude of different modifications of its OS running on an equally large number of devices (see image below). Microsoft faces less fragmentation, but with the introduction of Windows 8, all Windows Phone 7 devices will be left behind. Microsoft isn’t really a good example yet, it’s too early to see where they are going with things, so I’m not going to dwell any further on them.
The Good and the Bad
Fragmentation is good and bad. The reason fragmentation exists is that the companies are not forced to follow a strict standardization of hardware combined with the ability to modify the OS. This means manufactures are free to innovate and experiment with hardware configurations. They can then create a modified version of Android to match their specific configuration. This is good, the Android manufacturers are constantly outdoing each other when it comes to hardware design. It has also helped Android spread to like wildfire.
The down side is that it slows down the software innovations that Android introduces. Let me clarify, Google continues to make innovations, but whether your phone can make use of those innovations depends, not only on your phone’s hardware, but often whether your phone’s manufacturer will take the time to update your OS to Google’s latest benchmark so you can take advantage of it. Users often find themselves trapped in time, unable to experience all the things that Google has done.
Programming is also made more difficult when there is heavy fragmentation – the less rules in places, the harder it is to plan for every possibility. This is why Google’s app carry the stigmatism of being buggy. Bugs exist on Apple’s apps, but debugging is much easier when you know exactly what your user is going to be using than when you don’t.
Why hasn’t Google’s Castle Crumbled?
Cost has been the key here to fighting off the downsides of fragmentation. Much like the PC/Mac wars of the 80’s and 90’s, mobile phones are playing the same game. Here though, I think the battlefield is different. We aren’t talking a difference in price of thousands, but instead in hundreds or even less. The cost here that plays a bigger role is on the application side of things. Because things are more open, applications tend to be more apt to have a free or ad supported version than the iOS side.
Another is the hardware. We get one iPhone a year. Android gets a slew of new contenders every quarter. This means you can buy something cutting edge now rather than be caught in that point of oblivion where it’s 6 months before the iPhone comes out and buying the current version just feels like you’re buying obsolescence.
Additionally, I think marketing has played a big role. Google has just managed to convince the public that Android is simple and solid. The reason I say that is that outside of the geek crowd, I’m not sure how many people would really pick an Android device over an iPhone device if they had used each for an extended period of time. I miss my Android sometimes, but only because the geek in me likes to tinker with things — your average consumer does not. We want our phones quick and simple. I only want to spend a few seconds looking up where I am on a map, not 10s of seconds because I’m going somewhere now.
Google is holding on because no one has come along and taken the middle ground – Provided freedom, but not too much freedom.
Will Microsoft do this from Windows 8 on out? Maybe, but the innovation side of Microsoft, or lack thereof, may be the death of it.
I keep hoping that someone will give me the customization and integration of Android with the simplicity of Apple’s closed circuit route. Maybe it is impossible, but a boy can dream —- Oh wait, someone has come close to giving me this – it’s called a jailbroken iPhone.