There’s been a lot of talk lately—mostly by people who won’t get fired if their opinion is wrong—about how the iPhone is going to go the way of the Mac. What they mean, though, is the alternate history of the ’90s favored by tech analysts where Apple went out of business. Because while in our reality, where not only Apple but the Macintosh itself is doing better than ever (gaining market share quarter after quarter), for tech analysts the Mac/PC battle ended when Apple didn’t decide to make ultracheap licensed clone netbooks that still came with diskette drives.
So to the minds of some, the iPhone/Android battle is the same thing all over again. Android manufacturers will make cheap, two-fer-one smartphones, which people will gobble up over the more expensive iPhone. Once, in this scenario, Android market share reaches critical mass, developers will create apps for Android, and only for Android, and the iPhone will wither and die because there will be no apps for it. Now, the sheer idiocy of any point of this argument (Apple is profit-driven, not market-share-driven, there are already over 300,000 apps available) misses the point. Because this isn’t Mac vs. PC in the 21st Century. The iPhone isn’t a personal computer. It’s an Xbox. It’s a console.
The advantage of a console is its simplicity. You want to play a game, you put in a disc, you pick up the controller, you play the game. From the standpoint of a developer, the beauty of a console is that you know exactly what every one is like. You know how fast the processor is, what the graphics card is like, how big the minimum and maximum size of the hard drive will be. Personal computer gaming, on the other hand is a comparative nightmare of knowing, while you’re in the computer store with box in hand, of trying to remember what kind of graphics card you have and how much RAM. “This game is Xbox 360 compatible,” on the other hand, is much simpler. This is what makes a gaming console a consumer electronic device.
Angry Birds, one of the most popular iPhone apps, is also out for Android phones. Some Android phones. Rovio has released a list of devices that are not officially supported. The problem is that there are differences in processing power, of course, but also, Google has lost control of the OS. If they come out with an update to Android operating system, there’s not only no guarantee that the phone will be able to run it, but if the wireless company will allow it to be installed. So, even though Android apps share a common marketplace and the ability to install apps from developers directly, there’s no guarantee your phone can run the app you buy. Android phones are like PCs in that sense; you have to know what your machine’s stats are. But I bet there are a lot of angry emails being lobbed at Rovio from people who don’t get that, who have downloaded Angry Birds, but can’t get it to run on their Android device.
Apple, on the other hand, has a handful of iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads, and every iPhone 4 has exactly the same stats as every other iPhone 4 (the only variation being hard drive size). If you write an app, you know the stats of the machine you want it to run on. If you’re buying an app, you can quickly check on the App Store to see if it runs on your device (based primarily on iOS version number). Even my 2nd generation iPod touch will run virtually all the software on the App Store (other than things specifically for the iPhone or iPad), and it runs the latest version of iOS (though missing some features). If I buy a new iOS device (or buy one made in the last few years), I can be almost positive that it’ll run an App. And there are 300,000 of them.
Android ownership, however, is a more complicated path. “Does the app exist” is the big one. Does my phone have the processing power to run it? Does my phone run the right version of Android for the app (and does my carrier allow me install it). These are legitimate concerns, especially in terms of gaming, which make the highest demands on mobile devices.
Apple has always tried to embrace simplicity as a design concept, and now that more and more people who don’t see themselves as techies, people who don’t want to crawl around inside their computer to use it, people who just want their device to “just work” come to computers and smartphones, they’re seeing a lot of growth. I’m not saying Android will wither and die; if Verizon wasn’t coming out with the iPhone, my next phone probably would have been a Droid 2. We need competition, and both Android and Windows Phone will be part of an ecosystem along with iOS that will force each other to improve. But the arguments of the ’90s simply don’t hold true, and what some see as Apple’s arrogant decision to repeat the mistakes of the past is actually a successful strategy that’s making the company bigger than ever.