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.