A cheap Android phone is now a good phone. Your move, Apple...

A cheap Android phone is now a good phone. Your move, Apple...

Summary: I bought a Nexus 4 out of intellectual curiosity. After three years of using iPhones, it's now my main phone. That's great for me, but a problem for Apple et al...

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TOPICS: Smartphones
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Thumbnail - Nexus 4 Love
Bit too early for Valentine's day, but I simply can't wait any longer... I love you, Nexus 4!

One of the problems I have as someone who writes about technology is that there are certain types of technology -- particularly post-PC technology -- that you can only really understand by living it. The problem is that if you're like me and feel a level of affection for your smartphone that it borders on indecency, trying to live with a phone that's not your normal one is in reality pretty difficult.

But, when asking myself searching questions about the BlackBerry Z10 I felt I needed to know more about Android. The phone I've been using for the past year has been an iPhone 4S. I'd used Android kit for work, but that's not the same as living with it. So I bought a Nexus 4 when they came back into stock in the UK, the idea being to spend the least amount of money possible as I presupposed it would disappoint as much as first- and second-generation Android devices had.

What I received was a fantastically good phone, and one that within an hour had relegated my iPhone to the "list of phones I used to use". Whereas a year or two ago Android versus iPhone was about as fair a fight as a stone-age tribe against going up against a squadron of time-travelling F-15s, today a cheap Android phone is a very good phone. And that's a real problem for Apple, and also for Microsoft and BlackBerry.

Price

My affection for the Nexus 4 seems to stem from the fact that it is so cheap, although it's cheapness is a little bit of a cheat. Through the expedient of direct distribution through Google, the end customer doesn't pay the various fees to the middlemen in the chain -- specifically the carrier, the wholesaler, and the retailer. Google does take a small hit -- LG who make the device has to remain happy and not lose out compared to traditional distribution. All this means in the UK a 16GB Nexus 4 can be had for £279 including tax (about $450). In the US the 16GB model goes for $349 excluding tax. (If you take tax and duty out of that, it's about the same price in the US and UK, which itself is unusual.)

You can add to this cheapness the fact that the phone is fast (which it is), and good (which it also is). As technologists, we know that a product that scores highly on being cheap, fast, and good should be impossible. The Nexus 4 is the impossible -- it feels great to hold, the screen is big and bright (4.7"), it's fast and fluid (sorry, Microsoft). 

The fact I've been able to adopt the Nexus 4 into my day-to-day life can all be explained by "utility". The Nexus 4 is simply offering to me, personally, a level of utility which is close to that of my iPhone 4S, yet at about half the cost of a new iPhone 5.

I've started to use "utility" as a way of thinking about ecosystems. We tend to talk about a platform ecosystem, but in reality more nuanced than that. Each device platform has a number of ecosystems -- an app ecosystem (i.e. the catalogue of available apps), a content ecosystem (e.g. iTunes or Google Play), and a storage ecosystem. (This last one I use to think about how were I to write a document Office 2013 I might save it in SkyDrive and then have it available on all of my devices. You might also call this a "workflow ecosystem".) The utility of any one of these will vary depending on personal usage, and may be additionally split depending on usage modes. For example, I only use iTunes to buy movies for the kids, so the inability to watch an iTunes movie on an Android phone doesn't affect me at all. I use a small set of apps on a smartphone, but I do tend to use them day-to-day, so a poor app catalogue presents very low utility to me. Each individual will obviously need to satisfy different requirements from the ecosystems that they are willing to stump up cash for.

It's clunky and obvious, but you can notionally score a platform's utility by adding up the plusses and minuses from each of the ecosystem areas within the context of a particular mode of usage. For me, the score that the iPhone came up with wasn't too far from the score that the Nexus 4 came up with. I'm not sure I'm in a position that's particularly unique. (I hope to write more about this idea this month.)

Problems

That's a problem for Apple. Whereas in the period before if any non-technologist had asked me what phone they should buy I always would have said "iPhone". ("It just works.") Now that I own a Nexus 4, I can no longer do that. Moreover, I personally can't see why I'd ever buy an iPhone again because I'm now aware that I'm just spending an additional chunk of cash on a smaller screen, a nicer build quality, and notionally the chance of getting good apps first. (Developers are still tending to targeting iOS first and then porting to Android.) I guess I also get Siri.

Mind you, whilst that's disturbing for Apple, it must be terrifying for Microsoft and BlackBerry as they fight it out for the so-called "third platform" slot. (For the uninitiated, this is the idea that the market will support a platform other than the dominent iOS nor Android. Microsoft and BlackBerry are currently fighting for this piece of market.) Whereas before I thought this was an interesting intellectual exercise, I'm now wondering whether it's simply a straightforwardly mythical beast and that the best any contender for this slot can do is keep a toe-hold in the market and wait for a more decisive-slash-destructive realignment of the market where they can realise some sort of "first mover" advantage into whatever emerges from that destruction.

A key part of the "third platform" problem is that the remaining market that these two can move into is already small. In the US in the last quarter of 2012, Android and iOS together had 95 percent of the market. Therefore, both Microsoft and BlackBerry have to fight to get a wedge into that slot and then make it bigger. This means taking proportional market share from either Android or iOS. It's easy to attack Apple on price, but attacking Android on utility could be very difficult. The answer to both the Android problem and the upstarts weedling in to create a third-platform problem from Apple's perspective could be to deliver a cheaper iPhone. That's a scenario so explosive you could describe it as nuclear. But it's now one that I'm considering as being "likely". The iPhone needs a reboot -- cheaper, a more modern look (iPhone is having a fashion problem), and with a bigger screen.

And this isn't just about smartphones. I didn't like, and therefore didn't continue using, the Nexus 7 because the screen was the wrong size and the wrong shape. Widescreen displays on tablets make landscape content too stubby and portrait content too wide. iPad's 4:3 display, modelled on US Letter-sized paper works much, much better, even if you shrink it down to a mini 8" screen. I fear it's only that utility of that more appropriate aspect ratio that's keeping me on the iPad -- I suspect a Nexus 7 would offer good enough utility on the other factors.

Conclusion

Everyone has something to lose here. Apple has lost its key differentiator -- the iPhone is no longer obviously better than a strong, fourth-generation Android device. Microsoft and BlackBerry might be about to witness a nuclear war between two competitors that already outgun them in every possible way, leaving just scorched and irradiated ground for them to try and thrive in. And if Google does win this battle, it hasn't won the war. The big problem I see for Google is that Samsung is now so powerful within the Android market, it's starting to become unclear whether Android is actually Samsung's product or Google's. But that's a story for another day...

In the meantime, I have a really good phone that's really cheap. Happy customer is happy.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Google, Wikimedia

Topic: Smartphones

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200 comments
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  • That's OK, As Long As Apple Is Still Popular Among True Apple Fans...

    ...anybody who would even think of buying a non-Apple product obviously not being a true Apple fan...
    ldo17
    • What?

      Are you therefore suggesting that if Apple slaps on its brand to, say, a rotten carcass, "true Apple fan[s]" - in your words - would rush to buy it? Simply because it is an Apple product? No thoughts on utility, return on investment etc.? Kool-Aid indeed!
      crystalsoldier
      • Yep!

        Slap an half eatin apple on a pig, and the fans will go crazy!
        shawn@...
        • Or throw a green robot logo to it.

          A majority of Android owners are clueless about quality and dependability, Dole Bananas could make a Yellow Android Phone and the flock will buy them, theyre brainwashed.
          cheydaddy
          • Incorrect

            Actually, they are much more aware, due to the fact that they HAVE options when buying a product, unlike Apple fans, who have no choice but to buy whatever Apple's sweat shops in Asia are putting together for them.
            David Friedland
          • Choice

            How can an avid Android fan be brainwashed? Most of us are the opposite of that. We have choices where an avid apple user.............has..............the .......choice between................old iphone..........new iphone......?
            chethammer
          • Think about how you said that, robot

            Who really is the brainwashed group here?

            I hate to say it, but the anti-Apple zealotry is a far more religious experience than the Apple users group.
            Vulpinemac
          • @Vulpinemac

            How does someone that needs to research and analyze what a piece of technology offers become brainwashed? I have no loyalty to any brand, unlike you crazy apple people. I do my homework and choose the best value for my money. I would put money on the fact that you have probably never even given Android, or anything other than apple an honest chance. The reason why Android users are so vocal is that it is sad to see people settle for a company that charges top dollar for last years hardware; hence the high profit margin. What is even more sad is that you apple fans use profit margin as a plus when talking about apple. You guys are basically proud that you pay more for your products than the rest of us.
            SteveWojo
          • A Banana Phone?

            I want one!
            tombutler
          • Re: Dole Bananas could make a Yellow Android Phone...

            ...and yet Microsoft cannot manage even that.
            ldo17
        • Yeah...

          @Shawn...but it will be an Apple Pig.

          How cool is that.
          Jackie-Smith
      • Yeah right

        Disingenuously and retardedly said. You could say the same thing about an Android phone and unquestioning rabid Fandroiders. The mistake Fandroid make is thinking people who buy iPhones don't apply their critical faculties to what they buy trying to elevate their own feeble geeky critical skills and make everyone else out an idiot if they don't think like them. I suggest the far more intelligent folks buy iPhones. The cheapskates go Android and desperately justify their choice.
        anonymous
        • Choice... exactly

          You inadvertantly hit the nail on the head.
          If an Android product comes out, you can look at it, assess its pros and cons, then decide whether to buy it or not. Confident that there will be another different specced Android product out soon that may be a closer match to your requirements.

          With Apple, you have no choice.
          You either buy the next product from Apple or have to wait another six months for another, very similar product to come out with no reference to what the customer wants. There is no revolution, there is nothing new. Its the old Ford anecdote all over again. You can have any type of Apple product, so long as its the one Apple want to sell you.

          People don't buy Apple products to be cheap. They buy Apple products to have choice, to be differentiated, to have a product that meets their needs at an equivalent price. Pay more, get more.
          With Apple, you just pay. Call that progress??? Sounds like a hideous capitalist communist hybrid to me.
          K6H
          • Oops.. got carried away

            People don't buy ANDROID products to be cheap. They buy ANDROID products to have choice, to be differentiated, to have a product that meets their needs at an equivalent price. Pay more, get more.
            With Apple, you just pay. Call that progress??? Sounds like a hideous capitalist communist hybrid to me.
            K6H
        • Price no object

          I bought my Galaxy Note when it cost more than an iPhone.
          what's even more incredible is I already had an iphone!
          I simply wanted the best phone in my view and the iPhone wasn't good enough to be the weapon of choice.
          warboat
          • @warboat

            Thank you for this. I'm glad to see that someone like yourself was able to look past the apple hype to give another product a fair shot. The outcome was that you found a wonderful product that you enjoy, so you now have more options when purchasing phones in the future. Who knows, maybe the next iphone may satisfy what you are looking for, or maybe the next big Android phone will. At least you are not limiting yourself to a particular phone just because it is apple, which just seems so silly to me. Bravo sir.
            SteveWojo
          • @warboat

            well some people can appreciate the little differences that make an apple product superior, whereas some people just cant. One concrete example? the Retina display. No to mention the iOS interface simply "flows" with you. I have a galaxy S3 and an iPhone 5 and yes, the screen on the S3 is bigger, but the iPhone's screen resolution, contrast and overall quality is superior by far. I don't have a Galaxy Note so I can't compare.
            royalstream
      • Carcass, dog poo, an tiny iPod touch that you wear on your wrist...

        Doesn't really matter as long as the logo is a fruit with a bite taken out of it...
        T1Oracle
        • This says it all!

          I can't believe that the appeal of an Apple is defined by a logo.
          That suggests the owner of said device is:
          1. Out to win approval from his/her mates
          2. Willing to line someone else's pocket to excess
          3. Doesn't really know what's in his device
          4. Doesn't really care as long as it has a munched apple on it

          Not really my idea of a switched on technocrat. More like someone who succumbs to brainwashing. You should take more care of your money and enjoy it whilst it lasts for a fool and his money are soon parted.
          Radio Wales
      • Apple has been successful through the years ...

        ... by cultivating a particular kind of customer. Those customers have more disposable income than most and are wiling to pay premium prices for sexy-looking products. Apple's business model precludes them from selling commodity products - which is why so many people either LOVE or HATE Apple. There are not many in between.

        Whether Tim Cook can retain the Apple mystique created by Steve Jobs remains to be seen. I think Apple has seen it's heyday. They will be around for a long time to come but vendors like Microsoft will keep them at bay.

        There are two reasons why Android is a player at all. One is because, in the early days of the iPhone, if you were not an AT&T customer, then you had no alternative but to go to Android. Second, thanks to large carrier subsidies, Android phones have been able to undercut iPhone prices. Not true with tablets. Android tablets have been forced to race each other down to $199 price points - where there is too little money to be made for most of those vendors to stay afloat. I expect that many of those Android vendors will "jump ship" and move to Windows Phone 8 for better profitability.
        M Wagner