Android vs. Apple: The 2011 cage match

If you thought Google Android and Apple iOS butted heads in 2010, wait until you see what they do in 2011. And, see where both have weaknesses that could be exploited.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

Throughout 2010 there were escalating tensions between Google Android and Apple iOS, as the two platforms emerged as the rising superpowers in the mobile world. But, if you thought things were heated between them last year, then as the saying goes, you ain't seen nothing yet. These two ecosystems are on course for a massive collision in 2011 and the stakes are about to get a lot higher.

The arrival of the iPhone on Verizon is a major incursion into what had previously become Android territory. Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" (the tablet OS) is about to unleash an army of Android tablets in a full frontal assault on the iPad. There is going to be blood, but as my colleague Larry Dignan notes, the carnage is likely going to have a greater impact on the other competitors in the mobile market more than on Apple and Google themselves.

To help evaluate the race between Android and iOS in 2011, I'd like to approach it from the perspective of where the two platforms are vulnerable. That will help give us an idea of where they might go after each other and where upstarts may try to challenge them.

Weak spots for iOS

For the iPhone and iPad the number one draw is ease of use. Your toddler and your grandmother (the one who is intimidated by computers) can both pick up one of these devices and figure out how to use it. As Jerry Pournelle says, with Apple products "everything is either very simple or it's utterly impossible." The utterly impossible side is where we find Apple's first weak spot.

1. Software inflexibility: There is very little tweaking and customization allowed by iOS. You have to do it Apple's way or else it's probably not an option. These limits allow iOS products to function very well within the protected space carved out by Apple. However, if you have the need or desire to do something that is not within the boundaries Apple has set for iOS (and can't create an app to handle it), then you're out of luck.

2. Productivity limitations: Both the iPhone and iPad are far better devices for consuming information than creating it. Part of the problem is with the on-screen keyboard, which works magnificently for short bursts of data entry but is not something you want to use for writing an email or document of greater length. The operating system itself is not especially tailored for multi-tasking or work-focused tasks such as building presentations, editing files, and juggling several bits of information at once.

3. Fewer hardware choices: Some people prefer really big screens while other people like ultra-small and portable devices. Some want a high-resolution camera lens and all the multimedia bells and whistles in their mobile device, while others don't need any of that stuff (and don't want to pay for it) but want a really nice hardware keyboard so that they can do longer data entry more comfortably. With Apple products, you have very few choices. In fact, with both iPhone and iPad there are really only two choices to make when buying the product: storage and connectivity. You get to pick how much storage you want and you get to pick the wireless carrier on the iPhone or the Wi-Fi only model vs. the mobile broadband model on the iPad. That's it.

Weak spots for Android

The best thing about Android is that its Open Handset Alliance includes some of the biggest and best vendors in the mobile world, including Samsung, Motorola, HTC, LG, Dell, Sony-Ericsson, and many more. The Android partners make devices in all shapes and sizes and in virtually every iteration you can imagine. That's also part of the problem.

1. Ecosystem chaos: The Android operating system is open source and so hardware makers can take it and do almost anything they want with it. The only real carrot-and-stick that Google has is whether to allow the hardware makers the ability to include the Android Market for applications on their devices. And, frankly, Google has not used this as effectively as it could to keep vendors from doing bad things like launching with long-outdated versions of Android like the Dell Streak did and loading up the device with a bunch of uninstallable crapware like AT&T did with the HTC Aria and Verizon did with the Samsung Fascinate.

2. Wildly inconsistent experiences: One of the main consequences of the ecosystem melee is that there is not enough of a consistent experience across different Android devices. For example, nearly all of the hardware vendors put the Android menu buttons in a different order at the bottom of the screen, and many of them even use different types of button icons, further confusing users. Then there's the issue of Android software updates. Google releases major updates to the Android OS at least twice a year. However, in 2010, the only device that got those updates right away was Google's Nexus One, which runs the stock Android OS. All of the other Android devices have a vendor-supplied skin (which typically makes the devices worse instead of better) that runs on top of Android. The hardware vendors have to update their custom Android skins to make them compatible with the newest Android software and then submit it to the wireless carriers, who have to make sure it doesn't conflict with any of their Android apps, and then it finally gets pushed to the consumer. The timing of these updates is very inconsistent across the Android ecosystem.

3. Leadership vacuum: A lot of these Android problems boil down to the fact that Google needs to show stronger leadership of its ecosystem. Even if it can't ultimately force the hands of hardware vendors since Android is open source, it can use the Android Market as a bigger stick against gross violators and it can publicly suggest best practices that it would like to see Android vendors adopt in order to pressure (and occasionally inspire) the hardware makers and wireless carriers into better behavior.

How will it turn out?

In the smartphone market, you have to wonder how well these two will be able to market against each other to exploit their weaknesses. The two are fairly well solidified in people's minds. Unless more people get sick of being locked into the iTunes ecosystem on iPhone (no sign of that yet) or get fed up with the crapware and delayed updates with Android (only a few instances where the masses have noticed), then the 2010 growth trajectory of both platforms will likely hold.

The game is a little more wide open in tablets. Companies like ASUS are targeting Apple's weak spots in productivity and hardware choices. Hewlett-Packard could combine its long experience in tablet hardware with Palm's webOS to create a tablet with much better multi-tasking and business features than Android and iOS. But, again, Apple has a big lead here and Google's tablet OS that it showed off at CES looked very impressive and there are already a lot of big hardware vendors that have lined up to use it.

The bottom line is that both Android and iOS are going to be wildly successful in 2011 and continue to gobble up mobile marketshare. In most cases, it won't come at the expense of each other, although we should expect Apple to initially steal some Android sales on Verizon and Android will eat away at some iPad sales when its first wave of tablets hit the ground in the spring.

Nevertheless, there will be a ton of new customers coming into the market in both smartphones and tablets in 2011. Look for Google and Apple to dominate most of the new sales in both of those markets. That will keep both Android and iOS on major growth trajectories. Android will have a lot more devices and a lot more companies pushing its devices, so it will ultimately grab greater market share in smartphones, although Apple is very competitive on price (unlike in the Mac vs. PC battles of 1980s and 1990s) so it won't just be relegated to the high end of the market. It will take a much larger chunk of market share than it did in the PC wars.

And, in tablets, Apple is out to a huge lead with the surprising success of the iPad. Android and others will start to eat into that cushion in 2011, but Apple will still command a majority of that market by the end of the year.

What about Microsoft, HP, BlackBerry, and Nokia?

Unfortunately, it looks like all four of these behemoths are on the wrong side of history. These guys are all going to be reduced to challenger status in 2011. They'll be on the outside looking in. Both Microsoft (with Windows Phone 7) and HP (with Palm webOS) could have snatched some of the momentum away from Apple and Google a year ago in the smartphone market, but they're a little late now. Even though both have solid products, their timing is off and they have a lot of ground to make up in winning over software developers to their platforms.

As for BlackBerry and Nokia, they both have a large installed base of customers to draw on and build from, but it's not going to be enough to stem their losses in 2011. They are both too far behind when it comes to product innovation. Oh sure, they will continue to hold on to nice chunks of old market share in some places, but both will likely continue their decline at accelerating rates in 2011.

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This article was originally published on TechRepublic.

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