The Apple vs. Google smartphone race is coming to China - and from early reports, it looks like Apple is eyeing the rougher road to the top.
According to a report in the Financial Times, Apple couldn't come to a revenue-sharing agreement with the big dog mobile carrier in that country - China Mobile - and instead is talking to No. 2 China Unicom about a three-year exclusive deal for the iPhone. But don't think China Mobile execs are crying over the loss. They placing their bets on devices built on Google's Android mobile OS.
Here we go again - a multi-year exclusive deal with a carrier that is willing to give Apple what it wants in exchange for the chance to lure the young and hip over to its side of the fence with the iPhone. Sounds like AT&T in the U.S., right? And we've seen how well that's worked out.
Actually, for Apple, it's worked out just fine - record sales of the device, apps galore and plenty of buzz around the hottest gadget on the planet. But has it really been all that wonderful? There have been scores of complaints about the service with AT&T. Developers have been upset by Apple's random, no-explanation rejection of their apps. And there are plenty of potential customers who've been left out i the cold because they just aren't willing to be AT&T customers - myself included.
Sure, Apple has sold a lot of phones and, publicly, the company says that it's very happy with AT&T as its partner - but the buzz from behind the scenes is that Apple isn't very happy with the service problems and the subsequent negative customer experiences.
Who knows? Maybe the situation in China will be different. But there is one major difference between what went down in the states when the iPhone was first launched and what's happening in China today.
In the U.S., the iPhone changed the smartphone game by introducing a device that took mobile computing to a new level and sent competitors scrambling to come up with products and devices that could challenge it. This time around, mobile carriers aren't scrambling to create an iPhone killer. They have alternatives to the iPhone - and China Mobile seems to Google's Android. The carrier is expected to simultaneously introduce two Android-powered smartphones before the iPhone hits the market.
I like the iPhone - a lot. But it's not the only game in town anymore. The Android OS - based on my exposure to it - is a top-notch OS with some great apps and a very friendly user interface. Likewise, I've heard nothing but good things about Palm's Pre smartphone, which is running the new Palm OS.
Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of Apple's products - but, lately, I haven't been big on ego-driven business decisions being made in Cupertino.
Why did Apple squash the Google Voice app? Increasingly, Web-based services - including search, maps, mail and so on - are becoming integral parts of the mobile experience. But here you have Apple rejecting some of Google's apps for the iPhone.
Why is Apple so hell-bent on these long-term exclusive deals that keep millions of potential customers from becoming iPhone users? A lot can happen over the course of three years in China.
Bottom line: consumers today have some real options when it comes to an iPhone alternative. And while I'm sure Apple will be able to gain some ground with China Unicom and even lure some users over from China Mobile, there will also be plenty of China Mobile subscribers who won't be willing to switch - leaving the door open for them to discover the benefits of Android. As for Google, this would give the company three years to introduce the Chinese market to Android, without having to worry about iPhones sitting next to their phones in China Mobile stores.
If Google beats Apple in this smartphone race in China, Apple will only have itself to blame.
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