Apple vs Android: drawback becomes advantage

Apple vs Android: drawback becomes advantage

Summary: As the Android platform overhauls Symbian as the world's most popular smartphone operating system, it's also taken over from the PC as the focus of tech partisans and their illiberal debates. It's great fun to stand on the sidelines of the Apple vs Google wars and watch enthusiasts from both camps throw dignity and reason to the wind in co-dependent trollism.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

As the Android platform overhauls Symbian as the world's most popular smartphone operating system, it's also taken over from the PC as the focus of tech partisans and their illiberal debates. It's great fun to stand on the sidelines of the Apple vs Google wars and watch enthusiasts from both camps throw dignity and reason to the wind in co-dependent trollism. Great fun — just not very useful.

The smoke from the battlefield obscures the landscape. Android's success is in spite of several key drawbacks, and boosted through aspects that are more usually considered problems.

First drawback: marketing. Apple's primary function is marketing, at which it is extremely good. With an estimated half a billion dollars to spend yearly and a fearsome commitment to simple messages, the company has upgraded good mindshare to religious buy-in. Which, given the company's entire shtick is selling a couple of phones and a few laptops, then selling other people's stuff to go on top, is a feat of unusual skill.

Excluding YouTube, Google didn't even do marketing until a couple of years ago. Lately, reluctantly abandoning the mantra that 'marketing is the tax you pay on not being interesting', the company has dabbled in telling the world about the Chrome browser and enterprise apps. But despite actually selling (briefly) its own phone, it's done nothing for Android. Instead, it relies on its kitten basket of handset makers: zero cohesion and maximum cluelessness results.

Second drawback, the form factor. A huge market exists for Apple peripherals that just doesn't happen for Android. There's no such thing as a generic Android phone dock: even if one could be made, it would work just as well with non-Android phones, thus negating its market building benefits. Apple works hard to keep compatibility across models, and controls the aftermarket closely, while even if Google published physical and electrical specs for a dock connector and gave them away there's not much chance anyone would use it.

Final drawback: the Ghostbuster Question. Android has inherited this from the PC too - when things go wrong, who you gonna call? The OS maker points to the handset maker, the handset maker points to the network operator, the network operator dribbles a little and tries to sell you a new phone with a tighter data cap. With Apple, you go into an Apple Store, pin a Genius to the wall and they give you a new phone. This drawback isn't helped by Google's universal revulsion towards anything approaching actual user support for any of its products and services.

Two of the three drawbacks could be fixed by a campaign along the 'Intel Inside' lines, with manufacturers bribed to do the right thing through piles of marketing gold. Would it be worth it? Probably not. If Apple is spending a half a billion dollars and still not keeping a lid on Android, why even get in the game?

Support is the one place where Google needs to wake up, hire good people and build the best damn CRM system on the planet. You can do that, Google. You'd better.

The hidden upsides to being Android are carrier constipation, rapid OS upgrades, fragmentation and vendor-led port lag. None of these are Android's 'fault'; they're natural consequences of producing a mobile OS and setting no conditions for its use. They're thus absolutely opposite to all things Apple — and most things Nokia, Microsoft, et al — and easy to dismiss as unmitigated flaws.

But it ain't so. Carrier constipation — where a network operator takes a perfectly respectable phone and stuffs it full of horrible services, hard-wired restrictions and compulsory rubbish — is an ugly and unpleasant experience. Android being Android, you can choose instead a better experience from a different manufacturer without giving up any of the app market.

It's the same for carriers who refuse to track Google's upgrade path: the thinking is that this will force you to buy a new phone with the latest OS. Since users aren't in general as thick as operators think we are — evolution having gifted us with an IQ above that of a sprout — this doesn't happen. Instead, users switch to a carrier and handset manufacturer who's keener on their happiness. And the F-bomb, fragmentation, looks like chaos to the prescriptivist, but a lively, divergent and create market to those better disposed.

Again, competition turns what looks like a disadvantage into an advantage: it's all very Darwinian.

The question of what works best, control or chaos, isn't new. Nor can it easily be answered. If you want the Apple experience, there's nothing like it. If on the other hand you want a £90 smartphone, there's nothing to touch Android — and the £500 models are pretty good too.

The trick is not to get so invested in one side that you can't clearly see the good points of the other. Nonetheless, in a market where innovation creates regeneration, Google's approach scores lower on revenue but higher on survivability. And it's certainly much, much more interesting.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • "First drawback: marketing. Apple's primary function is marketing"
    Wrong. Thank you for playing. Tell me what is it about the iPhone when it appeared that made every other phone company say when it was released "it will never work" and yet almost every phone after that point share many of its features? Here is a clue: This was not marketing. Apple doesn't get credit for the things it has changed and it is always written off as "marketing" It is NOT marketing.

    "Support is the one place where Google needs to wake up, hire good people and build the best damn CRM system on the planet. You can do that, Google. You'd better. "
    All well and good but there is one thing Google doesn't do. People. Their support for the Nexus One was a prime example, it had a website to handle it all. It was a disaster. They are incapable of doing this. It is not in their DNA.

    " If on the other hand you want a £90 smartphone, there's nothing to touch Android — and the £500 models are pretty good too."
    Except you can now purchase the iPhone 3GS for $49. That is considerably cheaper than your £90 one. Actually if you want a free phone or one for a cent, if you are prepared to sign your life away for the next two years then you can pick up a low-grade Android phone.
  • @ John - You can pick up an iPhone 3GS for $49? I assume you mean on-contract, which makes the true cost vastly higher. You can buy a perfectly capable Android smartphone for £90-£100 on pay-as-you-go, which is a completely different proposition.

    I'd say Apple is excellent at both marketing and design, but it must be remembered that - in terms of function - Apple has not really taken the smartphone that much further than, say, the top-end Windows Mobile (yes, I know) handsets that were around in 2006. Forward-facing camera and videochat? Check. Cut and paste? Check. A why-not-try-another-app mentality? Not so much.

    The iPhone revolutionised handset UI design while benefiting hugely from the evolution of mobile broadband speeds, which were not up to scratch when Windows Mobile was the best OS around, and mobile processor performance-to-power ratios.
    David Meyer
  • It's different over here in the States. Yes I could see that some nameless handset could retail for a hundred quid in the UK or even an end of line name brand phone. Also off contract stuff seems much easier to do in Europe than America as not only do we have different carriers but also they all seem to have their own custom method of delivering calls making switching between carriers that much harder.

    But to deny that Apple haven't made significant changes in the last 4-5 years on the technology front strikes me as something typically British. To deny it because it carries a faint whiff of "not invented here" seems how people in the UK view their technology.

    So praising them merely for marketing and design is just as bad as Rupert's original take but with the addition of design added to the mix. There were no touch screen phones before the iPhone appeared that were usable. It seems to be easy with hindsight to forget that. Yes there was the Prada phone and a few others and indeed if you were not averse to using a stylus then both Palm (remember them?) and Microsoft would provide you with a touch screen experience.

    However it was not any of those that swung the way that all smartphones are now made. You saw the state of Android software when Google bought them. They were aiming at the incumbent then so it actually resembled a RIM device. It wasn't until Apple showed them how to do it that it magically changed into what it is today. (continued...)
  • ...
    Look at tablets. You again will say that it is merely marketing and design that got Apple to ship 14.8 million devices over nine months last year? It's OK it's only the sheeple buying it, no real technology there. No taking a custom build of a chip and doing critical battery research to produce battery times of up to 12 hours? Nah, that's just design and marketing.

    It is very easy to overlook the things that Apple has actually done and write them off, damning them with faint praise.

    It is very easy to overlook the fact that yes there were phones around before 2007 that had all the functionality that the iPhone brings if you ignore the fact that very few people got to use those features because it was so damn hard to access stuff.

    Look at how web browsing from mobile phones shot up on the release of the iPhone. Look at all the work Apple did with WebKit to allow the current generations of phones to browse the web with consummate ease.

    "The iPhone revolutionised handset UI design while benefiting hugely from the evolution of mobile broadband speeds, which were not up to scratch when Windows Mobile was the best OS around, and mobile processor performance-to-power ratios."
    Then that would suggest that Apple was in the right place at the right time. Which is also NOT design or marketing but excellent strategic planning. It also smacks of "if it hadn't been for those damn kids we'd have been right there too."

    You didn't pass any comment on Google's excellent support either.
  • @John - anyone planning to comment on Google's 'excellent support' may still be rolling on the floor laughing. That would be the excellent support that left a major bug (sending SMS messages to the wrong person) for many months until there was enough online interest to send an actual Google engineer into the newsgroup to collect data? Google is, as I thought your earlier comment was suggesting, attempting to crowd source support the way it has crowd sourced data sources (something that makes their attack on Bing look so much like special pleading).

    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • Sorry Mary, in my haste to split my response into two, I left off the air quotes in the final sentence.
  • Apple is a really good - if limited - design company but a truly excellent marketeer. If you doubt that, look at all the stupendously inventive design companies (Xerox: Ethernet, laser printers, the windowed GUI, the mouse...) who failed utterly. Where's the difference? Look at the laptops, which are nice but not that special. As for all the clever custom chip stuff, battery chemistry, what have you - well, we have Apple's word for that. If the company would care to share some details, we'll be able to tell how much is Apple and how much is its suppliers. The A4 certainly doesn't look like much more than a Samsung semi-custom job, and I think that most of the PA Semi high flyers have left Apple anyway.

    Which isn't to say that Apple doesn't make very good products. It does. (It also forces iTunes on people, if you fancy a bit of cold water.) But it's the marketing side that adds the superhuman glow, without which the company would be making a couple of mobile phones and a small selection of laptops.
  • It's worth taking a look at what's been happening with BlackBerrys. My bus home every evening is packed with 20-year-olds using low-end versions of the phones, not because they've been marketed to by RIM but because their friends and peers think the handset is cool.
    Karen Friar
  • It's an old truism that with "Apple: It's All About the Brand"

    Quoting from Leander Kahney's piece:

    Marketer Marc Gobe, author of Emotional Branding and principal of d/g worldwide, said Apple's brand is the key to its survival. It's got nothing to do with innovative products like the iMac or the iPod. "Without the brand, Apple would be dead," he said. "Absolutely. Completely. The brand is all they've got. The power of their branding is all that keeps them alive. It's got nothing to do with products."

    "Expressions of almost spiritual faithfulness to the Mac, although heartfelt, weren't a purely spontaneous response to a sublime creation," [Charles Pillar] wrote. "They were a response to a calculated marketing ploy to sell computers that cost much more than competing brands."

    Steve Manning, co-founder of Igor, a brand consultancy in San Francisco, California, said even a seasoned professional like himself is seduced. "Even though I understand this stuff, I’ve bought into it," he said. "I own four Macs. They’re more expensive, but the advertising and marketing works."
    Jack Schofield
  • It isn't _all_ about the brand - as Sony has learned, if you consistently put out sub-par products you can lose that futuristic sheen. Apple gets away with a few byes - I think the most classic recent case was that iPod Nano with the camera, which I suspect slipped through while Steve Jobs was away from his post.

    The strongest indication that Apple is primarily marketing-led is the way new features are dribbled out over the lifetime of a product. Stuff that could and should have been in early versions is gradually added in subsequent releases, avoiding the need to innovate too much while keeping the faithful happy with something new to buy. There'll be lots of iPad owners buying the iPad 2 for $600, in effect writing off some or all of their original iPad cost, because of a $10 camera part that could have been there from day 1. (Use your own figures if you don't like these ones.)

    And they'll be happy paying the same price again for a small delta in innovation. Why? It's not the innovation. It's the marketing, and it's the brand, and its where most of Apple's money comes from.
  • @Rupert: "Final drawback: the Ghostbuster Question... when things go wrong, who you gonna call?"

    As a one-time Mac user, the rather catchy Ghostbuster Question is a tad misleading. I _never_ used Apple for software support, it was always easier to use the web. I think it's a fallacy that homogenous support mechanisms can deliver better results than heterogenous bazaar-style searching on forums: maybe once in a while but not as a matter of course.
    Jake Rayson
  • Interesting debate.. I think what makes Apple great is the fact that they take care of user requirements. The products they make consider finer details and all components built to harmonize to give an ultimate user experience..

    Its not marketing but user experience which build the Apple brandname. I tend to disagree that brand keeps apple alive. In fact, their great products and user apeal keeps their brand alive.

    Ultimately Apple products are not for everyone. But I can tell you from experience, if you use apple products you would not like anything else. I started with mac, never liked microsoft look and feel, moved with iMac, Macbook pro, Ipod, Time capsule, airport extreme, airport express, ipod touch, ipod nano, iphone, ipad, macbook air.. there isn't anything which beats the experience around using Apple product. Everything works with just the right effort you need.

    Its their products and detailed attention to user experience which build the apple brand.
  • hands down at the mo its android, anyone who can use google can easliy learn to flash, strip, mod there android phone,tablet to there hearts desire, its linux afterall %-) sorry apple
  • Ah, yes. The Android is "hands down" the best....
    But why is the return rate on them 30%-40%? ( if they're so good?
    And why, if they're so good, has malware increased on them by 250% over just 6 months ago? (

    Perhaps some day Android phones will not only stop copying the Apple design but also produce a quality product that isn't prone to malware infection.
  • Lol - Android copying Apple - are you in this world?

    Apple exists because Bill Gates gave Jobs $150 bill when Jobs crucified the Apple company!
    Apple is too busy buying patents and chasing them to worry about 'new' ideas.
    'Voice' control - latest 'in-thing' for the i-Phone? Don't make me laugh - that was finessed with the Android - the Apple version is crep - and copied also.

    Apple is dead - long live Android - 600,000 ACTIVATIONS (not hardware sales - ACTIVATIONS) per month.

    Night-night iPhone - see you at 3% - just like the failed Mac.

  • Wozniak had been dabbling in computer-design for some time when, in 1976, he designed what would become the Apple I. Jobs, who had an eye for the future, insisted that he and Wozniak try to sell the machine, and on April 1, 1976, Apple Computer was born. Now apple is one of the best smart phone brand there is no chance for any drawbacks.
  • There is one big drawback on the horizon. What happens when Apple can no longer maintain its stellar growth? They are but a single company with near absolute control over its products, where the Android market is made of many.

    And as for "no change of any drawbacks" this is just not true.

    Publicity for the new iPad has not been universally great. The iPhone 4S was similar. iPod sales have dropped significantly as phones replace them. I am sure the iPhone5 will be fantastic, but what if it is not? What of the iPhone5S is a bit of a disappointment?

    What happens when the phone market moves closer to commodity? Can Apple maintain growth in the computer market if the market trend continues to depress in value? If a customer chooses to leave the iPhone market, what happens to Apple support revenue? Where is Apple's corporate market and what happens when that moves increasingly into the cloud?

    If Apple bases its whole reason for being around the iPhone it is doomed because you cannot base a huge multinational around a single product. (Apple does not do this, but some people seem to forget this fact.)

    If you want to see what happens when things go wrong you only have to look at Palm and Nokia.