For the November issue of Christian Computing Magazine, I’ve written the below column. As I’ve noted before, the readers of this publication tend to be less aware of mobile technologies and trends than the readers of this blog and are focused on getting up to speed on new technologies and how they can apply to their churches. Even so, I thought y’all might find this article interesting.
For the past couple of years, the Apple iPhone has dominated the attention of mobile phone commentators and enthusiasts. And for good reason. The iPhone redefined how a mobile device can be used to access the Internet and how it can support a vibrant developer community. The downside, as many iPhone fans have lamented, is that the device is only available on one of the four nationwide mobile networks in the U.S., and similarly has been exclusive on a single carrier’s network in most countries around the world.
So, are there any competitors to the iPhone emerging?
The clear answer is yes – in the form of Android. According to the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) website, “Android™ delivers a complete set of software for mobile devices: an operating system, middleware and key mobile applications.” The OHA “is a group of 47 technology and mobile companies who have come together to accelerate innovation in mobile and offer consumers a richer, less expensive, and better mobile experience. Together [they] have developed Android™, the first complete, open, and free mobile platform.”
The prime mover behind the OHA is Google. The Internet giant contributed most of the software in Android. But unlike the iPhone, Android is not controlled by a single company and is not constrained to a narrow set of products exclusively running on a single carrier’s network.
I am currently using the Samsung Moment, Sprint’s second Android handset (the first was the HTC Hero). T-Mobile also already has two Android handsets on the market, the MyTouch and the G1, both from HTC. Verizon is about to introduce their first Android handset, the Motorola Droid. AT&T is also expected to introduce an Android handset in 2010.
That last paragraph speaks volumes to the difference between the Apple approach and the Android approach. Just in the U.S., there will soon be at least five different Android handset models (Moment, Hero, MyTouch, G1, and Droid) from three different major manufacturers (Samsung, Motorola, and HTC) running on three different wireless carriers (Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon). Meanwhile, there are only two models (3G and 3Gs) of iPhones, from one manufacturer (Apple) running on one wireless carrier (AT&T).
For anyone who has been around technology for long, it’s not hard to see the parallels to the PC revolution. Apple was the early leader in personal computers with the Apple II, followed by the Apple IIe. Apple really moved the PC industry forward with the ground breaking Macintosh, which introduced a truly graphical mouse-based user interface. Many would still argue that the Macintosh operating environment stands head and shoulders above its Windows-based competitors. However, for the most part, Apple refused to enable other companies to manufacture Macintosh computers, believing that a vertically integrated business model was critical for producing the highest quality product. In large part, I think they’re right.
However, Microsoft worked with Intel to enable lots of companies to produce DOS and then Windows-based computers. Companies like Dell and Compaq flourished and Windows-based PC sales quickly surpassed Macintosh sales. The Mac is still a profitable business for Apple, but primarily serves a niche market.
Most importantly, software developers needed to decide whether to invest their time in writing for Microsoft or Apple operating systems. Before long, it became clear that Windows was the larger market opportunity, usually creating a greater revenue opportunity for roughly the same level of investment. Bill Gates refers to it as a virtuous cycle – the more Microsoft-based PCs that sold, the more attractive the PC was for developers. The more developers wrote software for Microsoft-based PCs, the more attractive the PC was for computer buyers.
Apple appears to be repeating the same set of decisions in the mobile space, and Android appears positioned to be the beneficiary of those decisions. Flurry Analytics, a mobile application analytics company, reported a 94% increase in application project starts by Android developers between September and October of this year. In other words, the number of applications being developed for Android nearly doubled in one month.
Already, there are over 10,000 applications available for Android. That’s only about one-tenth as many as the iPhone, but still more than any single individual could ever comprehend. And I believe it won’t be long before the gap closes and there are more Android apps than iPhone apps.
I’m sure that the iPhone will always have its die-hard loyal fans, and I expect that it will continue to be a very profitable business for Apple. But I also believe that the iPhone’s days are numbered as the leader in the smartphone space. As already noted, all wireless carriers are looking to Android to be an important part of their mobile device portfolio, and Verizon is being especially caustic in their attack of the iPhone with their “iDon’t” ads.
The types of folks that fill our pews every Sunday are starting to wake up to the benefits of Android. What does it mean for our technology ministries?
If you’ve been pursuing any iPhone-centric mobile initiatives, I recommend you pause and consider what will happen when the iPhone becomes a niche solution compared to Android’s market position. How much of what you’re developing is directly applicable to Android? (Web pages optimized for the iPhone may work perfectly for Android since both devices use Webkit-based browsers.) How much can easily be repurposed for Android? And how much is completely focused on the iPhone? (iPhone app development is primarily in Objective-C, while Android is primarily Java and XML.)
It will likely be at least a year (and probably even longer) before Android becomes more dominant than the iPhone. Given that timeframe, it may make sense to continue investing in iPhone-specific development. Or it might not.
Finally, start thinking about what will become possible if Android becomes as common for mobile devices as Windows has for PCs. Notice I still used the word “if” in that sentence, so don’t rush off and act rashly. Still, start considering what will become possible, and identifying the foundational building blocks you can start laying to prepare for an Android future. Are you ready for Java development? Have you started using Android yourself?
Act wisely! Vive le revolution!