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The problem with iPhone killers?

MG Siegler
Monday, October 26, 2009; 2:04 AM

Here we are again. The hype leading up to a new mobile device is reaching a fever pitch. Motorola's Droid sounds, looks, and by some accounts, is impressive. As such, everyone's favorite superlative is being thrown out there once again: "iPhone killer." Of course, we've heard this before ? maybe a dozen times. The BlackBerry Storm was the iPhone killer, the Palm Pre was the iPhone killer, the G2, etc. Not only does the iPhone still survive, it thrives. Why?

The answer is easy, but requires some explanation. Fundamentally, the problem with most iPhone killers is that they're not actually trying to kill the iPhone. They, as devices, may think they are, but most of them are playing a different game because of the OSes they run, and the companies behind them. One way to think about it is to compare smartphones and more precisely, their OSes, to religion (which we've done before). This is especially apt since the nickname for the iPhone is the "Jesus Phone."

In a religious sense, the iPhone is a monotheistic religion. Basically, its OS believes in one device. Yes, I know there is the iPod touch, as well as variations of the iPhone (original, 3G, 3GS), but these are essentially all the same device with essentially the same hardware, just boosted specs. Meanwhile, Android, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Symbian, etc. are all polytheists. But "pagans," while perhaps not exactly right, is a cooler term, so let's go with that. All of these other mobile OSes are pagans. They answer to many devices, their "gods."

Now, I'm not saying that the pagan approach is a bad one, I'm simply saying that in trying to kill a monotheist device with a pagan OS is going to be very hard. The problem is that none of these pagan OSes have any one device that they can use to sell the masses. They may put more faith in one device at any given time (which Android is already doing with Droid), but ultimately, their allegiance lies with the many other devices under their OS umbrella as well. The pagan church (in the Android case, Google), would be unwise to play favorites because it would undermine the ultimate goal: To be on as many devices as possible.

And I think Google realizes that. While they apparently have had quite a large hand in helping with Droid, it's Motorola and Verizon that are hyping it big time. But I think Google knows that the Droid isn't an iPhone killer. Instead, it's likely the best device they have so far to kill their real competitors: Symbian and especially Windows Mobile. Repeat after me: Android is trying to kill Windows Mobile, not the iPhone.

Another popular way to think about this is the PC (Windows) versus Mac history. Essentially, early on in the history of personal computing, the Mac was king. But then Microsoft came along with an OS that could run on devices from multiple manufacturers, quantity ruled the day, and the rest is history. Android, Windows Mobile, etc are often associated with taking this approach in the mobile battleground.

But things are different now. One could argue that there was a lot of other things going on inside Apple in the 1980s that led to the rise of Microsoft (and, of course, the ouster of Steve Jobs). Since then, Apple, for lack of a better phrase, has gotten its [act] together (and brought Jobs back). With the iPhone ? meaning the combination of the hardware, the software, and maybe most importantly, the App Store ? Apple has created an ecosystem that is fueling itself.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has been trying the same "quantity" approach in the mobile space with Windows Mobile for years now. For a while, it was working fairly well, but that was mostly due to a lack of competition in what was still a very small market. Now, they're bleeding market share in the space, and the future looks grim. Again, not so much because of the iPhone (which is hurting it short term), but because of Windows Mobile's true competitor: Android.

Not only is Android open source, but it's free. Windows Mobile, on the other hand, is still ridiculously charging manufacturers upwards of $25 to use their sub-par OS. Their strategy seems two pronged at this point: 1) Try to leverage the Windows PC brand as much as possible and convince users that Windows Mobile tied to Windows itself create the best environment for mobile. 2) Get out Windows Mobile 7, an entirely new OS, as quickly as possible.

The problem for Microsoft (again, for Microsoft, not Apple) is that Android now has real traction with manufacturers and a massive amount of devices about to hit (including Droid) should push Windows Mobile behind Android in the hearts and minds of the public. And while it's still smaller in market share, that could change as well much sooner than Microsoft would like to admit.

Let me be clear: I think it's pretty likely that eventually Android will even be bigger than the iPhone worldwide. Again, it's a different game. It's monotheist versus the pagans. It's Mac versus PC. Even if and when Apple breaks its AT&T exclusivity in the U.S. there will still basically be only one device. Android will have dozens of devices. And even more in other parts of the world. But the iPhone will continue to survive and even thrive, just like the Mac is right now.

By offering one device, Apple is accepting a trade-off: They're sacrificing quantity for quality. Apple has complete control over its device (and probably too much with regard to the App Store), and because of that, it can build something that melds software and hardware like none of its pagan counterparts can.

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