Can Apple's iOS really beat Google's Android?

Steve Jobs was understandably bullish on iOS during an investor call on Monday. All his talk of Android fragmentation, though, largely missed the point of the increasingly pervasive embedded OS.

Steve Jobs obviously thinks so (or at least wants investors to think so), based on Apple's investor call today. As was widely reported today, including on the ZDNet Between the Lines blog, Jobs took Google to task over its fragmented Android platform and the way in which its "open" ecosystem benefited neither consumers nor developers.

But can one OS on a very limited range of carriers and devices really beat Android in the long run, no matter how fragmented? After all, Android's fragmentation is both its greatest weakness and a sign of its greatest strength. The fragmentation of the OS and apps is a direct result of a highly competitive marketplace offering extensive choice for consumers in terms of carrier, handset manufacturer, form factor, etc.

There is no doubt that Google's unwillingness to step on carriers and handset manufacturers to force them to at least consistently and quickly move to the latest version of Android is a major problem for developers and has left many consumers stuck in 2-year contracts languishing on Android 1.6. However, Android phones are flying off the shelves, the first Android-based "credible entrants" (as Steve Jobs called them) to the iPad-dominated tablet market are coming online, and Google TV (also powered by Android) is set to shift the way we consume media in our living rooms in ways that Apple TV just isn't.

If the iPhone actually makes it to Verizon (and I think it will), then we're going to see an explosion of iPhone sales that will take a toll on Android handset marketshare. However, handsets are just one part of the Android pie, a pie that will be rapidly expanding in the next 2 years. Ultimately, Verizon iPhone or not, Android is going to be the platform of choice in too many markets for Apple's iOS to dominate it.

Steve Jobs calls it fragmentation. Quite a few others call it an open platform (not the smokescreen of openness to which Jobs refers) with endless possibilities on a huge variety of devices. Android will necessarily experience "fragmentation" when it drives everything from Nook e-book readers to Sony televisions to tablets to wireless handsets to your car. This presents difficulties for app developers wanting to make appealing applications for the largest cross-section of consumers, but opens new opportunities for niche developers and equipment manufacturers. We aren't far from seeing apps developed specifically for in-car systems or Google TV to the exclusion of smartphone apps. And it isn't as if LG could license iOS to connect their appliances to smart home technology.

A better question may be if the iPhone can beat Android as a mobile phone OS. I still don't think it can in the long run, but a CDMA or dual-band iPhone will certainly give Android a run for its money in the mobile space. However, I'll gladly take some fragmentation if it means I can have a variety of devices made smarter, better, and more connected by their use of Android. Hardware and software developers don't think of iOS as an embedded operating system. Android, on the other hand, can absolutely be the embedded OS for a new generation of devices. And several million smartphones along the way.

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