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Android: A Better iPhone?

iPhone has created the market, but Android has the potential to own it.

Thank you, iPhone

Let me begin by saying that I am a fan of mobile — just about every kind of mobile platform is of interest to me.

And I don’t have a lot riding on “which platform” wins the mobile race, if ever one platform can be declared the “winner” — I am just thrilled to see the pace of the game quickening and the fervor with which manufacturers, software vendors, and of late, consumers are embracing mobile.

When the iPhone came onto the scene a couple of years back, my first reaction was that “content” is the real winner. As the platform has matured, I have become more convinced of that than ever.

If content is the winner — then content producers are likely to thrive, provided they can adequately monetize.

Of course, content has always been important. Why the focus here? Why now? Simply because today’s mobile devices — starting with the iPhone — and now with newer, more capable devices including the Hero from HTC/Sprint, Droid from Motorola/Verizon, are simply awesome devices upon which to view content.

And let’s not forget other players such as a legion of Symbian and Windows Mobile devices that have been paving the way and carrying the water for years. They are formidable in their own right — and of course the other newcomers from Palm — the WebOS devices, Pre and Pixie. All of these devices are tremendous content-viewing platforms. Some better than others, sure, but all very good.

These new devices are fast. They can hold lots of content. And – they can get updates over the air or via WiFi. If mobile means more than email to you, this is an exciting time as we watch these capable platforms dueling for our hearts and minds. And of course, our wallets.

For sure, challenges will persist for mobile platforms. The more content there is, the more we want to store. The more we view the content, the bigger load we put on the power sub-systems of these devices. Color screens eat power, pure and simple. Add to that the “always on” nature of contemporary devices and it is a recipe for power outages. But in the end, the good news is that our mobile devices can render content in a more-than-adequate fashion today and there is no shortage of applications to run on our devices!

Of course, content isn’t new. Way back in the PalmOS days, AvantGo was the rage. This software application allowed users to sync content to their device for “off-line” viewing. As I recall, it employed some basic “distillation” process to take desktop content and make it viewable on the Palm’s screen. People loved it. Today, it is no more. Killed by the web. Killed by things like email, SMS, and RSS readers. And ultimately, killed by better rendering platforms like iPhone.

Is iPhone just like Palm OS?

The modern mobile scene was defined by Palm in many respects. Palm was the platform that was able to climb out of the murky small-potatoes niche marketplace and actually move the needle commercially. Everyone had a Palm Pilot. Why did it succeed where others failed or struggled? Because it was simple. Use the stylus (or your finger nail) to tap on an icon to run an easy-to-use application. Simple. Stupid simple.

Today, millions of iPhones have shipped and tens of thousands of applications are available for iPhone/iPod Touch. It is a staggering number when you think about the brief window of opportunity the iPhone has had — only a couple of years. But here is a question that comes to mind — one that will perhaps get under the skin of some iPhone lovers: “Is the iPhone much more than a soup-ed up Palm OS device?” Let’s consider this for a moment.

  • The Palm OS has a very simple, icon based home screen — even my mom could use it. iPhone looks pretty similar — though the icons are certainly sexier.
  • The Palm OS is single tasking except for a background networking thread. iPhone is pretty similar — run one application at a time and take a call if necessary.
  • The Palm OS had a cult following. No question, iPhone has a cult following — and much broader than Palm because of the consumer appeal.

iPhone certainly has more horsepower than even the latest generation of PalmOS Treo devices and is much more broadly received. Palm was largely relegated to the business community until text messaging became the rage and it found its way into the hands of younger generations. Even today, many younger consumers prefer non-iPhone devices because the iPhone is a sub-par texting platform.

Ok, how about applications? Applications for Palm OS were everywhere — and that was before it was “cool” to download applications. We’ve already mentioned the wild success Apple has enjoyed with their app store. Apple didn’t invent the app store, though they have certainly done much for Digital Rights Management — something Palm didn’t quite master.

When the topic of digital rights and piracy comes up, we should have a look at the respective developer communities. Palm enjoyed an enormous and largely cooperative developer community that was the envy of many in the industry. And that despite the fact that the Metrowerks tools were not a free download — Palm was popular back in the day before the free-download model was the norm. I still have a couple of CodeWarrior boxes on the shelf — I don’t know if you can even get a boxed copy of Xcode for iPhone? Unfortunately Palm pretty much abandoned their developers. Apple would be wise to take note and not repeat Palm’s steps in this regard.

The Palm of today is an entirely different organization — and WebOS is an entirely different operating system — but that is a discussion for another day. The point is that Palm OS is dead. Will the same thing happen to iPhone? Yes, I know it is hard to imagine. But just a decade ago it was hard to imagine Palm being dead. Does iPhone have any natural predators? Perhaps.

Move over, iPhone, Droid is in town.

When the iPhone was released, thousands of anxious customers lined the streets to pay top dollar for the device –- often times switching networks along the way just to have access to the prized device from Cupertino. The device they waited in line for was just a shadow of what the iPhone has matured into these past years as the hardware has been beefed up and the software matured. People buy the iPhone for many reasons. Some for the apps, a few for the network, and many to be cool. Is that enough to hold onto their position in the market?

In the time since iPhone launched, it has became a house-hold name and pumped billions of market cap into Apple. Yet, another platform has been gaining momentum. This of course being Android, the open source project sponsored largely by search giant Google. To date, the devices have been a bit of a yawner — the HTC Hero being somewhat of an exception. The G1 launched only on T-Mobile was nothing to call home about — though you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Well, things seem to have changed — there’s a new kid in town as they say. I don’t watch much television, but I did manage to see one of the Android commercials from Verizon — pretty cool stuff. And this weekend I read that folks were lined up at midnight to get the new Droid phone built by Motorola for the Verizon network. Droid didn’t get the same crowds as the iPhone, but the fact that people stood on line for a Motorola device on the Verizon network should get someone’s attention. Neither Motorola nor Verizon bring to mind the same kind of top-shelf, hip-ness that Apple exudes daily, but they are a force to be reckoned with.

I wouldn’t be liquidating Apple shares just yet, nor necessarily jumping to buy Verizon and Motorola stock, though to fully disclose, I don’t own shares in any of those firms. But think about this — an open source based cell phone is on the Verizon network on a Motorola device. Many linux-based phone projects have come and gone without that opportunity. There is quite a bit riding on the back of this Droid device. Oh, and by the way, there is another Android device on the Verizon network — the Droid Eris, manufactured by HTC. Now we can start to get a feel for what kind of impact Android will have as it is now on all three major carriers in North America.

Another dozen plus Android devices are going to hit the market by Christmas time — and according to the commercials — Android does a bunch of stuff that iPhone doesn’t do. To be sure iPhone is not going to die tomorrow — Apple is too clever and shrewd to let happen, but Android is on the march and with it the hopes of many.

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