Droid & iPhone: Platform vs. Integration

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on October 30, 2009

Photo of Andrew LeesA couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Andrew Lees, senior vice-president for Microsoft’s Mobile Communications Business unit to talk about Windows Mobile and the future of smartphones. Lees was passionate in defending the Microsoft approach, where the company supplies the software and general specifications, then leaves it to the handset makers to design and build the phones.

“People want choice,” Lees said, defending Windows Mobile against my assertion that the success of both Apple’s iPhone and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry was due to the fact that they are vertically integrated products, controlled from top to bottom by a single company. “Part of what we bring is the ability to have a stylus, a keyboard, or a touchscreen.”

The introduction of version 2.0 of Google’s Android software on the Motorola/Verizon Droid this week raises the possibility that Lees may be philosophically correct, but he may be riding the wrong horse. The arrival of a much more mature Android means we are going to see a fair fight for the future of smartphones between the models of vertical integration and open platforms.

The advantages of integration are obvious. On handsets more than PCs, the success of a user interface depends on it being tailored to a specific piece of hardware. Every bit of the iPhone version of OS X seems tailored to the specific capabilities of the device--the keyboard and display in particular--which is a big reason why the user experience is so good.

Things are a little rougher in BlackBerry-land, where RIM has to support devices with more diverse capabilities. The touchscreen Storm2 in particular has put a strain on the one-size-fits-all OS; some features designed for keyboard-equipped BlackBerrys don't feel right on the big touchscreen. Still, RIM has also done a very good job of delivering a very good experience.

Windows Mobile until now has been the leading platform choice (Symbian is a contender, but I live in the U.S. with very limited access to Nokia devices, so I going to stick to what I know.) And Windows Mobile is a mess that the newest version, 6.5, does little to clean up. The symbol of WinMo futility is that new touchscreen phones come with a stylus, which immediately takes you back a decade or more. Worse, the stylus isn't just an atavism; with the insensitive resistive touchscreens that WinMo still requires, there are times when you really need it. An interim release that will support more modern capacitive displays is due in a few months, but a major overhaul, Windows Mobile 7, is not expected to show up in handsets until a year from now, by which time no one may care.

Android has a real chance because it started out as a much more modern design and Google has shown the ability to evolve in Internet time. In a little over a year, we have seen two major versions of Android, with two significant point releases (1.5 "Cupcake" and 1.6 "Donut") in between.

Still there are risks in the platform approach. One is that Google has relatively little control over how hardware makers use the open source Android. The biggest risk would be what's known in the software development business as a code fork, which means that we would see different versions of Android that would not all run the same applications. With luck, Google will use its heft and influence to keep this from happening. But even relatively simple variations, like handsets with or without physical keyboards, can lead to software compromises the produce less-than-optimal experiences.

In the end, customers pay their money and make their choices. iPhone-like top-to-bottom will probably always yield the best integrated products. The price you pay is that Apple gets to make all the choices. If you prefer, say, a physical keyboard, you just have to go somewhere else. And in the case of the iPhone, Apple also has control over what apps are approved to run on it, and if you want, say, Google Voice, you'll have to go somewhere else for that too.

Today, with iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android, we have three world-class product families with different approaches to software and hardware development. BlackBerry tends to live mainly in its own email-centric world, but iPhone and Android will be going at it head on. It's going to be interesting.

Reader Comments

aust

October 30, 2009 5:12 PM

The battle of smart phones is not about the handset technology it is about applications. I would not consider moving to a new phone unless popular apps like NeuroMobile and a few others were available on the new phone. Any short-term advantage that another smart phone makers might have over the iPhone will be quickly matched by Apple.

Charles Little

October 30, 2009 6:50 PM

I like this writers approach and value of the facts. Its like a true unbias view of democrats and republicans. The both have their good and bad.

Ratnok

October 30, 2009 8:44 PM

Great article. No fanboy bias clouding things up like "Aust's" reply comment. You did miss one point in WinMo, Blackberry, and Android's favor. Multiple hardware and multiple carriers breeds deeper adoption. The ONLY reason the iPhone isn't the dominant phone on the market (regardless of the blind faith that iFanboys have) is that the iPhone is strapped to AT&T and one form factor where the other 3 are not. Unless Apple gets the shackles of AT&T off their ankles, it's Android for the win by the end of 2011.

Market Analyst

October 30, 2009 11:29 PM

Windows Mobile is toast. It can't gain traction. Apart from it being technology from yesteryear, and the technology press loathing it, it can't attract developers.

The developers have deserted Windows Mobile and are now writing applications for Android and iPhone instead. Hence, Windows Mobile has less than 300 apps in the application Market Place. While Windows CE has a lot of legacy apps from long ago, Windows Mobile has very few new apps, because no new development is happening.

Microsoft will release Windows Mobile 7 next year, which will bring multi-touch gestures and support for capacitive screens at an OS level. This update will catch up to where competitors were 3 years ago. But because it still will have few applications, it will gain little on what Windows Mobile 6.5 is today.

The inevitable result will be that Windows Mobile is discontinued for consumer smartphones. It's just a matter of time. However, Windows CE derivatives will still live on, but in specialized industrial settings only.

The smartphone race has been won by Android and iPhone. Windows Mobile will wither away.

HerbertBarry Woodrose

October 31, 2009 7:14 AM

I have to agree for now with Aust, and it's not about being a fanboi.

The difference between what Apple is doing with the Iphone and what everyone else is doing is miles. I helped a friend research for an article about Netbooks, and my conclusion was that when you buy a netbook you get lots of scary warnings that they call 'recommendations' practically ordering you to upgrade the netbook immediately if you expect to have any kind of user experience.

Specifically I'm thinking about Dell.

By the time you added there 'strong recommendations' the netbook was in the range of a Macbook. Worse, if you added anything beyond the 'strong recommendations' you were over the price of a Macbook and getting into Mac Air territory. My conclusion was that the best netbook was the Iphone. I was wrong.

The iPhone these days is doing things no netbook is doing. There isn't anyone doing what Apple is doing with their apps. We aren't talking fart apps either although I confess I love those: let's talk political apps, productivity apps, safety apps, medical apps, filing, recordkeeping... and we haven't gotten into gaming, where Apple is competing with game-only handheld devices and doing well.

And I'm someone who still has the 1st gen phone. I love the new phones, they look great; I just haven't outgrown the first one, and I still love it.

I should add that I inherited the phone; I was in the market for a phone and did NOT want an Iphone. I JUST needed a phone. And here is where I am NOT a fanboy: I agree with Ratnok. Apple's slavish devotion to AT&T makes me want to vomit all over myself. I can't STAND AT&T.

The service is INFURIATING. It's a misnomer to call this 'service'. I was on a call last night - in my home, not driving around - on the iPhone, with a friend who is TWENTY miles away. TWENTY. And in just a few hours we dropped MORE THAN THAT NUMBER of calls. This is atrocious.

WE need more writers talking about this. I lost the call more than THIRTY TIMES. I kept switching to my landline too, but in a cruel twist of fate my account hadn't registered auto-pay for some reason even though we'd set it, and we didn't know this; and last night was the time when the phone company shut me off. I practically ran to pay the bill but it took a night to get service back.

I was stuck with the iPhone. What a sad comment.

I listen to the Howard Stern show; recently he was in the market for a phone and while he was close to switching from Palm to Apple, and was DEAD SET against a Blackberry, somehow he ended up with the Blackberry. His conclusion? The Blackberry would be great if it worked as a phone. He had AT&T. He switched to Verizon and loves his phone. I am jealous.

I TRIED to avoid the iPhone because of AT&T, and also because the iPhone was just more than I was looking for. I only wanted a phone, I felt that the entire suite of computing offered by the iPhone was overkill for my needs. My wife loved her iPhone because she runs her projects on it - it doesn't do everything but she can monitor and make minor changes from it. She wasn't looking to upgrade.

Most importantly I hoped that I would get off cheap. All I want is a phone; everyone else is running around with the sum total of human knowledge in their pocket; surely I'd get a break for just wanting a phone.

I had a Verizon phone for 9 days before I needed to be out of that contract. I paid the abusive cancellation fees, that's how upset I was with the actual phone I got, and worse, with the constant posting of new bills on my account by Verizon. In 4 days they found reasons to post 4 different bills. I was looking at having spent $300 and I had the phone 4 or 5 days by then. They kept telling me it was all one time costs and wouldn't go on like this, but I was just stunned that for LESS I could have had an iPhone. Feeling foolish, I corrected the situation. I don't want to pay more for less.

But let me tell you - on Verizon I could hear people. I could carry on a conversation until their iPhone dropped me. But that was another problem - only 2 people, out of everyone I know, don't have iPhones. So it was pointless for me because the calls still sounded crappy from their end and were being dropped. So I thought, anyway.

It didn't really occur to me that I'd have days like I'm having, where the other party and I COMBINE to create utter chaos in the form of dropped calls and yelling "Are you still there?!?"

AT&T's service is an outrage.

Apple's support of them, and forcing me to do business this way, is an outrage.

If it wasn't for the fact that my wife upgraded to a beautiful new 3GS and I inherited her 1st gen that I've enjoyed since it came out (still has the aluminum backing), and that the phone (look, I know how this sounds, I was right there with you in hating Mac Fanboys just a few short years ago) actually has improved *several* areas of my life, I'd go down to the Apple store and crash the phone at the feet of a "genius" just as a form of protest.

But the fact is that even though it is not a phone, it is possibly my favorite computer right now. I just wish I didn't have to get another, or a first, depending on how you look at it... mobile phone.

But I won't. I'm paying too much a month for mobile communication, it's too expensive no matter what you are doing on it. I didn't have a phone before because I hate being on-call every minute, I hate the way people can't be anywhere without needing their phone like a pacifier.

But it occurred to me that if I ever drove off the road and into a ravine I'd feel like a jackass for not having at least something that I could use to call for help. Or that I could use for directions if I got lost, or for the little things like calling the wife because I forgot why I'm standing in the middle of the grocery store.

So the iPhone accomplishes those most basic functions. If I fall into a ravine I doubt I could call out, but I imagine I could use any number of apps to get out a message. Maybe Facebook or Twitter? Maybe I can use Open Table and make a reservation under "HelpI'm BleedingOut"?

I don't mind paying for this wonderful device every month - but it should at least work as a phone. And I really wanted a good phone - I just couldn't pay even close to an Iphone and not get what iPhone users are getting. I found myself in the Verizon store doing weird math with the salesman when I was returning the Verizon phone: "REally? You think that phone is only 15% less than an Iphone? You think it's 20% less? How can I pay every month knowing what that I'm paying 15% less for a thousand percent less?" They tried to make the case of course that I can't judge by phone, but by plan, but that's their logic and their problem. Not mine. I see now that Verizon is spending money advertising that they want people to look at plans, not phones. Poor bastards. They're hearing this from people like me all over this country.

The DAY I can get this Iphone on Verizon, the MINUTE - I'll pay abusive cancellation charges yet again, and begin the fight with Verizon anew, simply because Verizon is a real phone company and AT&T is not.

Andrew

November 1, 2009 12:05 AM

@Market Analyst: I really hope that isn't your career, because you're definitely not delivering any valid analysis with that comment. Microsoft has deep pockets and sees the threat the iPhone represents to their core Windows business. They will do what it takes to make Windows Mobile a success - and if you doubt MS can make a good consumer product, the Xbox and Zune HD make some pretty compelling arguments othewise. The next few years are going to be *very* interesting in the smartphone space...

Paddy Martin

November 2, 2009 1:28 PM

@HerbertBarry Woodrose

You are all over the place. You could have made your point in 2 sentences. You hate AT&T. You like the iPhone.

Jim Jones

November 2, 2009 4:59 PM

@HerbertBarry Woodrose
just the fact that you listen to howard stern & follow his adivse, shows you are an idiot. you rambled on & on at length, but didn't make any sense. if AT&T service is not good at your house, it doesnt prove anything abt AT&T servuce for others. it just shows u have no common sense whatsoever. stop bitching abt it. And stop crapping all over the comments section & let others post something useful.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. 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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