Can Android Vanquish the iPhone (and Walk on Water)?

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on June 24, 2008

A theme runs through a large number of the many comments posted to my column on the iPhone and iPhone wannabes: Phones based on Google’s Android operating system will soon emerge to blow away the iPhone and everything else. Of course, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Android is running well behind schedule, in large part because of bickering between Google and carriers over just what it should be, but what’s a quarter or two of delay among friends?

The fact is the Android right now is in that happy place where it can be anything the folks speculating about it want it to be. My gut feeling is that the challenge is going to be harder than Google expects. On the plus side, the effort is being header by the extremely clever Andy Rubin, whose credits include the Danger Sidekick.

But the minuses are formidable. Google has no handset or wireless experience and the whole project is dependent on execution by a group of carriers and handset makers with wildly conflicting interests and goals. Consider how long it took Microsoft to turn Windows Mobile into something even semi-useful, and say what you will about Microsoft, the company does not lack for resources or talent. Also, Google must contend with suspicion among some of its partners that it's true goal in the Android project is to extend its growing domination of desktop search advertising to the still virgin field of mobile ads. Verizon has shown a lot of interest of late in open handsets but instead of aligning with Google and the Open Handset Alliance, it has aligned with the LiMo Foundation and its mobile Linux efforts. And Nokia's decision to promote royalty-free distribution of the Symbian operating system is one more factor for Android to contend with.

Maybe Android will revolutionize the handset business. But I'm waiting to see it running on production handsets that you can actually buy before I reach any judgment.

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Reader Comments

Debbie

June 25, 2008 08:23 AM

Sour grapes. what's the matter? don't you own any google shares? or, are you just short?

mjw149

June 25, 2008 08:46 AM

Tell me this: based on usage stats, what is the IPHONE'S KILLER APP?

Google.com

We knew the iphone would be good, and we know this will be good. Why? Not because I have blind faith, but because I have reasoning. Google has the right incentives to serve consumers and they execute. That's your analysis right there. Google's stock will shoot up 6 months from now after Android phones get through the initial hype, then the backlash, and then finally the cool moment.

Shiraz

June 25, 2008 09:16 AM

Hi.

WOW! Consumerville is at war!

This is a difficult one isn't it - guesstimating who will emerge as the victor of the Mobile OS platform.

The end result, I think, will emerge based on what's best for the end-users. As we move forward, I think people will go with what is the least complicated choice - the last thing consumers want is to be faced with yet another life -altering decision. I say life altering because while it may not be obvious, a mobile handset is a very personal device and stays on your person most of the time. It goes everywhere you go and these days is essential to daily functionality.

Its VERY possible that Android will be the next Windows. However I have this itch on my brain which says maybe not. One thing Apple has going for it BIG TIME is the fact that they already have an established, intuitive and appreciated eco-system built around the iPhone while everyone else is scrambling to figure out their strategies and decisions.

Developers may prefer an open system like Android, but most users (billions) are simply average users who want a more reliable standard thats comfortable. iPhone's existence in relation to iTunes/Mac/Windows provides a great advantage here. Not to mention it is the coolest kid on the block which sits well with many concumers, especially the younger audiences who will be tomorrow's leaders.

Thats not to say that it'll always be this way, something better may emerge tomorrow. The biggest disadvantage which Apple has is the carrier-exclusivity deals. Users want an easy solution but don't want to be told who they HAVE to sign with. The success of iPhone's adoption will depend heavily on wether or not the respective carriers' offer the outright best deals with their contracts.

Whatever happens, its already better today than it was yesterday. Can't wait to see how this plays out.

Steve Wildstrom

June 25, 2008 09:36 AM

@mjw149--We don't have such stats, but at this point, I'm sure it's the Mobile Safari Web browser. Right now, except for the relatively small number of iPhones that have been jailbroken, the only apps available are those that Apple put on it. But that will change dramatically in a couple of weeks when Apple opens the App Store.

I agree with you that Google has the right incentives and has a history of very good execution. But mobile phone software is really, really hard. Apple managed to get it right on the first try, but the task Google is tackling is harder by a couple of o0rders of magnitude because to succeed, Android must run on a broad range of hardware. Microsoft has had an awful time with WinMo with despite much narrower hardware specs than Adroid plans to support.

niaz

June 25, 2008 10:49 AM

I once read article that experience in the specific product or field is not needed. How could iphone from apple take over the world.. where motorolla or Samsung had more experience. I am long on google.

Shiraz

June 25, 2008 10:58 AM

@Steve Wildstrom-- I agree with you, but I have to add that while iPhone OS can kinda be considered Apple's first mobile phone OS, but its still OSX, which is the evolution of about 20yrs of state of the art, sophisticated OS experience, all the ups and all the downs and every lesson that went with it.

Add to that the fact that our handsets are turning into mobile computers and Apple, has an advantage in dealing with applications and developers which the other handset makers do not. Google understands it sure, but the decisions will be made in large by the device manufacturers who need to cater to their specific devices.

Android may overcome all these obstacles but its these obstacles which will complicate its course.

Henrik

June 25, 2008 11:16 AM

Don't misunderstand me here, I love the iPhone. But, its only truly revolutionary feature is the fact that you can have a usable, full-featured web-browser in your pocket!

Most of the web isn't written for mobile. But when the iPhone came out... that didn't matter anymore. That was its defining advantage.

At the end of the day, the biggest problem for us Americans is dealing with an entrenched cell-phone industry who couldn't care less about the consumer's actual needs. I fully expected that we would have seen the death of the ridiculous "standard" two-year contract (enslavement) years ago. Now, apple/att took a step backwards with a subsidized iPhone and a more expensive 2-year service contract and people cheered!

Now, we finally have a consumer-centric company, Google, joining the party. Don't underestimate their ability to shake things up. I've been on the Google campus, there has never been a larger collection of young, intelligent, developers. These guys grew up on open-source, it's about the consumer, they get that!

Apple, and now Nokia (with Symbian) have strong brands, but Google's a VERB!! Just sit back and watch.

It may take them a while, but Google will figure it out. BTW, Have you guys seen the Android demos from the Google I/O conference? Good stuff. We've got some exciting times coming up in this industry.

djdouma

June 25, 2008 01:05 PM

Why is mobile phone software "really, really hard"? Admittedly the transport layer and core cell services are non-trivial, but those are essentially solved problems. The application layer, which is what we're really talking about here, is really not that big a challenge. Phones are limited and require significant optimization efforts in order to perform well relative to their potential, but no more so than laptop computers. The fact that Apple, a newcomer to the space with no prior telecom experience, was able to "get it right on the first try" speaks volumes about the reality of the technical challenges. Google's technical talent and resources are not substantially inferior to those of Apple. And like Apple, Google has collaborators with telecom experience.

Also like Apple, Google has an incentive to change the status-quo and seems to plan on doing that by providing substantial new capabilities to consumers and by fostering a robust platform for 3rd party developers, including small independent developers.

These are profound changes to a very important productivity tool and economic driver. A substantial new marketplace is about to open and the potential benefits to society are quite exciting. Debating whether it begins in two quarters or in three seems petty.

K

June 25, 2008 01:37 PM

The demos are amazing. I mean really you have 3d graphic support. You can play quake on a cell phone. Android creates the platform, the problem is that there isn't advanced hardware yet. Once manufactures like Motorola figure out how to create the phone, then it will be amazing. Think beryl on a cell phone. The only limitation will be the hardware not the software.

Rip Ragged

June 25, 2008 01:56 PM

The winner will be one that's actually for sale.

All the other speculation is applesauce.

Steve Wildstrom

June 25, 2008 01:59 PM

@djdouma--Not to be snide, but if it is easy, why is most mobile software so bad?

Why is it hard? There are a bunch of reasons. For one thing, radio management is very difficult and it is critical to both performance and battery life. This has to be done completely in the OS, because the last thing you want is for apps to get anywhere near the radio. If you talk to companies like RIM, Palm, and Microsoft, they will tell you this was the hardest thing to learn. Apple gets credit for doing an amazingly good job on the first try.

But Apple has a huge advantage that Android does not. Apple designed its software for a single device of its own design. Adroid is promising to make its software work, off the bat, on a staggering variety of hardware. You get a sense of the difficulty of this if you know just how hard it was to make Windows Mobile, which was designed for a QVGA (240x320 pixels) display work on the Palm Treo's 320 pixel square screen.
Adroid is also struggling with demands of all the carriers and all the handset makers they are trying to work with.

My guess is that despite everyone's best intentions, we don't actually see an Android handset commercially available before the end of the year.

Steve Wildstrom

June 25, 2008 02:01 PM

@K--Yes, the demos are amazing. But they are running on computer-based emulators. Making that work in an actual handset is a whole different story.

Mykel

June 25, 2008 02:23 PM

"Once manufactures like Motorola figure out how to create the phone, then it will be amazing."

But Apple already has that figured out, and their software development team is simply FASTER than Google's. Where Google wants to compete is software, which Apple already has functioning and is improving. Where they are lacking is a phone, which Apple has and is improving. As long as Apple doesn't rest - but keeps improving, then it will be difficult for Google to ever catch up.

As far as "google.com" being the killer app? Hardly. The web interface is the killer app, but now new ones are being developed. Android has of yet to have a single app completed for it.

Joe

June 25, 2008 02:58 PM

Mobile Ads? Are you kidding me? I don't think so.

hardmanb

June 25, 2008 05:22 PM

So far, Android is vaporware, and cell manufacturers and especially carriers will keep it that way, and do everything to cripple Android while talking the "open" talk.

The truth is carries will NOT embrace an open standard that means they lose control of mobile calls, internet calls, VOIP, games, music and video downloads, SMS and MMS tolls, and all their various revenue sources. They will NOT allow themselves to be reduced to "dumb pipes", as that would be their doom.

Look for the carriers to embrace other mobile operating systems through purchase and merger and even cooperate in a competing system to Android.

It all about the revenue.

Clov

June 25, 2008 05:24 PM

Thats a pretty Naive statement Joe. How could you really draw that conclusion? Of COURSE there will be Mobile ads. This will allow for cheaper services, which consumers will flock to.

Steve, the demos ARE NOT just on emulators, I have seen them fully functional on mobile devices. Given there not released yet, give it some time.

The bottom line is the devices coming to market are EXTREMELY capable, its only a matter of the software getting written and distributed. I personally use a NOKIA N800 for my mobile device. If you want a taste of the variety of Applications that open source can bring to market, browse http://Maemo.org

The smartest most innovative App i have seen in development for Android is probably the Iris recognition security software. So smart, we all have capable cameras on our phones.

The biggest hurdle for google in my opinion has got to be negotiations with the major carriers, however this may radically change if google ends up taking a VOIP approach via wi-max, as i have heard many speculate in the past.

Dirk Diggler

June 25, 2008 06:21 PM

Buh-bye Apple...Android is going to kick your tail and laugh all the way to the bank. I for one can't wait to boot my iPhone and get one of the variety of multiple handsets to be released for Android.

AnonymousAdult

June 25, 2008 11:32 PM

I just watched the Android demo from the Google developer conference. I could have been watching Apple demo the next point release of iPhone.

Android as presented is an iPhone ripoff, plain and simple, and
a platform which is open, probably as open or a little bit more open than Apple is now on iPhone.

So what has Google really done? They took all of the same old features which smartphones have had for years now, added iPhone-like features, came up with a "mangifying" alternative to the tap and pinch zoom mode of iPhone, and came up with a couple of oh-cool features (compass mode).

But in reality, they have not innovated in any material way. They did execute. They did cover all the usual features.

This reminds me of Google finance. They copied all the usual stuff and added basically one cool innovation (tagged graphs) which according to the press was an idea borrowed from Yahoo design meetings (they also borrowed Yahoo's finance person as product manager).

And it reminds me of Gmail, which is pretty good, but has simply caused the other biggies to give more storage and add searching and other features.

I am pleased however to see a bit more competition for Microsoft. That is the biggest service Google has provided outside of search. They have forced Microsoft to "innovate" (sic) again.

Meanwhile, I think that when it comes to phones and smartphones, people really do want "solutions", and this is where Apple plays to its strengths in rendering a complete package. iPhone is awesome. It is not that expensive. 3G iPhone addresses the one big issue.

Google should put its bright engineers to better tasks than copying work of non Microsoft freedom fighters like Apple. What is their point?

marn

June 25, 2008 11:44 PM

lol iPhone. It can't even send Instant Messages. SMS? How quaint.

iGimp is more like it. Gimped on purpose by Apple so that you're forced to pay for SMS. No iChat for you. Closed system = bad for business.

Android's openess will crush iPhone like a fly.

Asmodeus

June 26, 2008 01:37 AM

Now, now, Dirk. Wouldn't you say that's jumping to conclusions.

To see the outcome, you have to see both sides. Otherwise, your just gambling with your predictions. Please, just recognize the facts and consider them.

riksaga

June 26, 2008 02:34 AM

run opentick on my mobile - cha ching
and
./spamkiller.pl

Emock

June 26, 2008 10:50 AM

Ummmmmm....I thought Newsweek had a better research staff then a 5th grade blogger. Ever heard of the Iphone. I cannot live without Google on the iphone....as it integrates with maps and I can find anything anywhere at any time. Plus, the functionality is just as good as if I were sitting on my laptop. I would say that would consitute experience in the mobile market. Can you imagine a world where every small business (restauraunts, etc) would pay a small fee to be able to provide just in time info on their company from mobile phones that is actually functional??????

timbo

June 26, 2008 10:56 AM

Dirk: You already paid Apple for one iPhone, you'll probably end up buying the 3G version too since Android is still VAPOR.

Jim

June 26, 2008 04:09 PM

I dont want ads on my cell. Period.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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