The next year is going to be fun.
A month from now, the Android-powered T-Mobile G1 will go on sale, along with all the Android apps in the online Android Market store. Having played with the G1 for a half hour or so on Tuesday, my reaction is — YAWN!
Don't get me wrong, the G1 isn't a bad phone. But it's kind of like seeing Toby Hall as Truman Capote in Infamous right after Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for playing him in Capote — good, but I've seen it already. It doesn't matter how good or even how bad the G1 is; its introduction, along with the iPhone, changes how we look at cellphones. Suddenly it's all about the operating system.
And it just happens Apple and Google have completely different philosophies concerning their varying cellphone ecosystems, Apple with its usual paranoiac digital dictatorship and Google with its anyone-can-play Android anarchy. Are we looking at a replay of the ultimately lopsided late 1980's battle between Windows vs. Mac OS? Follow the Continue link to find out.
The parallels between Android vs. iPhone/Windows vs. Mac may not be perfect, but the feeling of déjà vu is as palpable as post-coital musk. Like Microsoft, Google doesn't make hardware. As a result, it will have dwindling control over the hardware it's implemented on and the applications developed for it. As a result, some Android phones will barely rise to the level of mediocrity and unvetted apps could contain unwelcome surprises.
The iPhone and its software are more tightly integrated and make for cooler products and a better experience, and its applications are likely to work better. Like Windows, Android is likely to be widely adopted into other cellphones and portable media players (à la the iPhone's OS on the iPod Touch). As more and more devices adopt Android, iPhone's advantage, influence and importance, even with a 10-million-unit head start, could begin to erode as Apple's PC share did in the early 1990s.
But in this version of the battle, Apple holds a key advantage: iTunes.
It's the Content, Stupid
Apple wasn't in the content business in the 1980s, and Steve Jobs wasn't the largest shareholder of one of the industry's largest media conglomerates. Today, iTunes is the Wal-Mart of the downloadable music and video business. Numerous concerted attempts have been made by the most powerful players in Hollywood and Silicon Valley to topple iTunes, and all have failed miserably. Remember PlaysForSure?
Amazon will be Google's content partner for DRM-free music and video. Amazon's library doesn't match iTunes (yet), and it's unlikely to get ABC or ESPN television or Disney movie content, but it's not that hard to see how Amazon/Android could chew a sizable chunk out of iTunes' content hegemony in a year or two, though it's doubtful they could really challenge Apple as the leader in the field.
But it's also easy to see how this could all go horribly wrong for Google, even if Apple does nothing.
It's the Desktop Application, Stupid
Google's first problem is iTunes — not the online store, the desktop software. Online store, media manager and sync, all in one application. Astoundingly, there is no analogous Android desktop app. Consumers can cruise Amazon and download music and movies to their heart's content, but how do they get everything on and off their Android device? (And don't tell me all the music and movies you buy on the phone will stay on the phone — even Apple isn't that restrictive.)
Yes, there's Windows Media Player, or G1 owners can use some the other third-party media management application. Beyond that, you can drag and drop. But the mass market craves ease of use, and that would be the mass market Android needs to attract to just level the playing field with the iPhone. Relying completely on imperfect existing third-party applications instead of a tailored Android application that integrates Amazon's music and video offerings, isn't just plain dumb, it's a horribly missed opportunity for both Amazon and Google.
It's the Carrier, Stupid
Android's second challenge is its initial carrier partner. T-Mobile has around 30 million subscribers, less than half as many as AT&T, which shrinks the G1's potential customer base. Plus, to download music and especially video content right to the phone you'll need 3G service. T-Mobile will have 27 3G markets up and running by year's end. AT&T has more than 300 3G markets.
Of course, Android phones won't be ghettoized at T-Mobile. Sprint will have its own Android phone sometime next year. But Verizon has committed itself to the Linux LiMo cellphone OS. Splitting the market, with the two smallest carriers carrying Android phones and the two largest carrying phones with a different cell OS, divides the marketplace to Apple's advantage.
It's the Competition, Stupid
Third, because Android is open, there's nothing to stop other online media moguls — Rhapsody, Napster, Pandora, Netflix, et al. — from creating their own access and player applications for Android. So instead of Apple facing two monolithic and dangerous competitors in Google and Amazon, Apple will continue to face the existing unruly and uncoordinated mob of iTunes competitors. As usual, united they aren't, so divided they'll fail, which puts us right back where we started: Apple continuing to dominate.
And this is all assuming Apple does nothing. Yeah, this is going to be fun.