What Makes Android Tick

To the average user, Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android platforms are two variations of the same thing — they’re just software that runs smartphones. Both offer touchscreen capabilities, and both offer third-party applications that enhance the experience.

The differences, however, are significant, and they go far beyond hardware, which Apple typically claims as its chief advantage. Looking under the hood, the trained eye can see a philosophical chasm between the two systems, and this difference is where the two platforms are staking their claims to market share.

“People who bought the iPhone are people who know, like and do business with Apple. They’re looking for the next, best, hottest thing,” telecom and wireless analyst Jeff Kagan told LinuxInsider.

With Android, on the other hand, Google has pursued a more open strategy both in terms of its operating system, which is open source, and in its overall marketing philosophy, which puts its operating system on handsets made by multiple manufacturers for a variety of wireless carriers.

What They’re Shooting For

Both strategies appear to be having their desired effect. Apple has carved a solid niche as one of the top sellers worldwide, according to Gartner Group, behind Nokia’s Symbian platform and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry.

Gartner’s report shows Android making gains in global sales and surpassing Windows Mobile to gain a 9.6 percent market share for smartphones.

Symbian’s strength tends to be outside the United States, while BlackBerry has a solid hold on the business user segment. That leaves U.S. consumers — no small segment of the market — and this is where iPhone and Android are duking it out.

In the most recent sales report by The NPD Group, which tracks U.S. sales, Android moved into the second-place spot behind RIM and, with 28 percent of the market, moved ahead of Apple, which commanded 21 percent.

The timing of these reports is to Apple’s advantage. It comes at the end of the sales cycle for its latest version, iPhone 3GS, and during the now-routine news blackout that comes before each new iPhone announcement. It is widely anticipated that Apple will introduce its newest iPhone iteration at its upcoming World Wide Developers Conference, scheduled to begin June 7.

Naturally, at the end of a product’s lifetime, sales tend to drop off as anticipation builds for the next version.

However, Google and its partners — such as Verizon, Motorola and HTC — have seized the opportunity presented by this lull to launch a rapid-fire counterattack, rolling out new smartphone models with more powerful hardware.

Most recently, Google announced the impending release of the 2.2 version of Android, codenamed “Froyo.” This version offers Flash support, tethering and mobile hotspot capabilities, features that are unlikely to be found any time soon on the iPhone. Additionally, Android now has native Microsoft Exchange support, an option that digs into BlackBerry’s coveted market base.

Oddly, Android’s primary strength might be Apple’s exclusive agreement with AT&T. This deal forced Verizon, which is in its own fierce battle for market share, to search for an alternative to the iPhone. The first offspring of the Verizon-Android alliance, the Motorola Droid, showcased the ever-improving capabilities of the Android platform and solidified its place as a player in the smartphone ecosystem.

When the only Android phone you could get was the T-Mobile G1, Android didn’t stand much of a chance to contend with iPhone, much less overtake it, Kagan said. Now that Verizon has gotten into the game, however, the stakes have changed.

“Right now, it’s the early stages. This is the next generation — there’s a variety of networks with a variety of handsets,” Kagan said. There’s a variety of things that are going on that make this different from Apple.”

While Apple has been developing its one new offering, HTC and Google have ticked off model after model: Nexus One, MyTouch, Evo 4G, Droid Incredible. They come with slightly different features emphasized, and are available on a range of carriers, highlighting the strategic difference quite vividly.

The open philosophy espoused by Google in creating the Android ecosystem matches well with the strategy Verizon Wireless is following.

“We don’t want to be a one-phone company and a one-operating-system company,” said Verizon Wireless spokesperson Ken Muche. “Our approach was more embracing the platform. It’s very unique compared to the others.” The openness of the Android operating system, which allows handset makers to layer on their own user interfaces, is “one of the differentiators” of the platform, he said.

Verizon’s network was ripe for the picking by such handset makers as HTC and Motorola, which both have sought to make a stand for themselves on the back of Android.

Verizon’s Open Development Initiative was designed with such hardware makers in mind, Muche said. The idea behind it is to encourage handset manufacturers to create products specifically for Verizon.

The User Perspective

There is, however, a limitation to the value of openness, and openness varies based on your perspective, said Chris Hazelton, research director for the 451 Group. For the device maker, it’s a bonanza — you can create whatever user interface you wish and design it for any network carrier that will have you.

From a user’s perspective, however, you may begin to see that openness eroded. Your carrier may limit the applications you can download only to the ones on the Android Market, or it may bog your phone down with carrier-specific applications that cannot be deleted. The default search may be Yahoo or Bing, even though you bought a phone with Google’s operating system on it.

“The open operating system offered by Google doesn’t necessarily translate to openness for users,” Hazelton said. “In some cases when you lock down a smartphone, it’s almost like running around the Internet on AOL. It’s just like going back to the ‘walled garden’ on feature phones.”

The idea of openness may have gotten away from Google with regard to Android, he said. Initially, the goal for Android was to create a mobile platform that would spotlight Google’s features — maps, search, cloud-based applications. The Nexus One is Google’s attempt to create just that phone, even though the versions of Android phones sold by other handset makers may not live up to the Googleplex’s ideal for a smartphone.

There are two extremes at play, Hazelton said. On the one hand, openness creates a variety of opportunities to get your device or software in the hands of the masses. On the other — the Apple model — you create an elegant and tightly integrated ecosystem from software to hardware to network.

“You kind of want something in the middle, but I don’t think that middle has yet been found,” Hazelton said. “There’s too much money in control.”

While iPhone relies on one very well-done piece of hardware and one very large carrier, Android takes the scattershot approach, chipping away small constituencies with different taste in features and on many service providers. Open vs. closed, elite vs. everyday. Both seem to be working well in their own ways.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories
More by Jason Z. Cohen
More in Mobile

LinuxInsider Channels