Recently I was asked by an analyst, “How sustainable is Apple’s iPhone growth really? If another device comes out with similar functionality at a much lower price, and on a better network, couldn’t there be a market share erosion?”
A very good question. As a mobile development company, we intuitively feel Apple’s lead is increasing, not under threat. Is that complacency? At first glance, devices such as HTC’s EVO or Motorola’s new DroidX should certainly be capable of standing toe-to-toe with the iPhone.
There are many reasons consumers might pick one smartphone over another, but evidence is mounting that they use and love their apps. If this is true, then Apple’s position is becoming stronger every day.
The Apple culture, driven from Steve Jobs down, is maniacal about user experience. The company understands that if a user doesn’t like what’s happening on her iPhone, Apple will be blamed. To address this, the company created the concept of “curated software” where Apple ensures the quality of the native software permitted on the phone. Despite developer complaints about lack of freedom, the development community has “voted with its feet” — iPhone boasts three times the number of apps as Android and almost 30 times as many as BlackBerry.
A large part of this dominance is driven by Apple’s success in standardization — one OS, one device, one store, one set of carrier rules, clear economics, easy developer tools, and clear UI rules for apps (life is easier for users when the “share” button looks the same on every app), all tied into the iTunes system.
Google is exploiting Apple’s position by offering Android as the “free and open” platform. Fair enough. But free and open is also messier. As a developer, I have much more freedom on the Android platform, but I also have lots more work as I adjust apps to work on different phones for different carriers and distribute apps through various stores. All this friction explains why the iPhone’s lead in apps, in absolute numbers, is increasing every month.
Apple’s critics point to the success of free and open models such as Wikipedia or open source software, but there is a big difference. A user can make an educated decision as to whether a Wikipedia article about World Cup history is better or worse than one in Expedia, and an open source engineer can judge the code he’s looking at. But most users cannot judge the quality of a piece of software, and how it will affect their device in the long run. Apple solved that problem by creating and enforcing quality standards.
The other criticism of Apple is that the company is repeating its mistake of 25 years ago, when it developed a closed system that “lost” to the IBM/Microsoft open system. This analogy overlooks a seismic change. Back then, there was no interoperability; the battle was winner-take-all. Apple lost because it ended up with fewer software programs (or apps). Today, I can use a PDF, HTML or Word document on any platform. My data/documents sit in the “cloud.” Your device is just your preferred way of interacting with the cloud. So this time, the most user-friendly device/platform will win.
So to start taking share from Apple, a competitor would have to do much more than build a better device. The competitor would have to create an entire standardized ecosystem, starting from a very small base. It can happen of course — maybe Microsoft’s strategy of tying Windows Phone 7 into the Xbox and going at it from the gaming side will make some headway. But for now, Apple’s lead is sustainable and growing, so any mobile strategy must continue to have the iPhone as one of its key pillars.
Tobias Dengel is CEO of WillowTree Apps Inc., a mobile applications developer. He is also BIA/Kelsey’s new Technical Editor and will be posting regularly on mobile-related topics. The views he expresses are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of BIA/Kelsey.
Related: BIA/Kelsey’s Mobile Local Media program is currently preparing a client Advisory that compares Google’s and Apple’s mobile strategies.