Is Apple iPhone now unstoppable in the mobile platform wars?

I’ve been reflecting on a chat I had with a mobile application developer at Qt Developer Days last week. He thinks that Apple has all-but won in the battle to dominate the SmartPhone platform.

His reasoning is based on a couple of things. The first is that Apple is easily outpacing others in application availability and number of app installations. I guess there are many ways of counting this, but have a look at these figures. Handango, which has been in this game for over a decade, reported in January that it had over 140,000 apps and 100 million all-time downloads across a number of SmartPhone platforms. Apple reported this month that it has 85,000 apps and 2 billion downloads.

His second point is that Apple is one of the few companies to understand that users like consistency better than choice. “If I pick up an iPhone, my fingers know what to do,” he told me. This makes users reluctant to switch, except to another iPhone. By contrast, Nokia has a zillion different devices supposedly tailored for the needs of different customer segments, but as a result there is no sense of a consistent platform and users can easily switch away. Windows Mobile has the same problem but with multiple vendors as well as frequent design changes from each vendor.

These are points well made. If the much-rumoured Apple tablet appears, we can expect the App Store concept to extend its reach to larger devices as well. No wonder Adobe is so determined not to be left out on this platform, announcing a compiler to convert Flash applications to native iPhone code, as well as stepping up its campaign for Flash in the iPhone browser.

That said, I can think of counter-arguments. One is that iPhone isn’t yet, as far as I know, strong for corporate development. Windows Mobile has some advantages here, for Microsoft platform companies, while Java (not available on iPhone so far) is also appealing to corporate developers.

Another is that Google Android will give strong competition and take advantage of Apple’s weakness, its reluctance to abandon premium pricing.

Third, the consistency argument only goes so far. If you look at today’s iPod touch, for example, compared to the first iPods, there are huge differences. Users will in fact switch if there is convincing value in what is new.

Fourth, the more iPhone grows in importance, the more discontent over the closed nature of its platform will grow.

It is still early days for SmartPhones as a development platform; and while it is fun to speculate, things may look very different in a couple of years.

Still, let’s acknowledge that right now it is advantage Apple.

See also: What’s your choice in the mobile battleground?

and this great rant from a frustrated Symbian/Nokia developer:

Calling all Nokia & Symbian geniuses: Am I wrong?

12 thoughts on “Is Apple iPhone now unstoppable in the mobile platform wars?”

  1. The iPhone simply rocks. It is what introduced me to the Apple platform as a whole. I now use a Mac etc. There is something really special about Apple being able to control the whole user experience. It is really cool. Lots of Choices are not always the best thing.

  2. iPhones advantage is an ecosystem with cloud/apps, music, video, podcasts, … desktop broker app [iTunes] for local synch/back, config, … and an emerging family of scalable platforms iPhone 2.5G, 3G, 3GS, iPod touches, and more coming. Other than some purists complaining, a very sophisticated developer infrastructure and real evolving business models for developer with a very low barrier to entry.

    Android offers some interesting ideas, but basically stuff happens on iPhone and gets ported to Android or Windows Mobile. Blackberry has a similar “closed” model that business has embraced, therefore business may take on a lot on iPhones. But in the end, the consumer will really drive success for iPhone.

    It is unlikely that the iPhone will dominate as strongly as the iPod, but unless industry gets beyond pundits and bloggers focus on the device, now its Motorola Android [remember Nokia, Storm1, LC, & Palm?] and sees the entire integrated package they will struggle and yield larger market share to iPhone and its successors and next gen devices.

    MS is not incompetent on Windows Mobile, but Apple spent 4 years in iPhone prep laying a foundation that could adapt rapidly to environment and capture opportunities, this is hard! In addition to laying the foundations in cloud, desktop, and smart mobile appliance; Apple keeps moving the goal posts every year.

    Year 1 Web apps, Year 2 3G and App Store, year 2.5 App store with developer business tools, and what happens in Jan and June 3 and 9 months away? Markets changing from Music, Video, Movies, IM, Mail, Location Aware, Social Networking, eReader on Kindle on iPhone, Apps for games and navigation and now video capture, edit, & posting [watchout Nintendo and Cisco].

    This constantly playing catchup while Apple innovates and drops the prices thereby removing shelter for competitors. This was the iPod story being played out all over again.

    If “… discontent over the closed nature of its platform will grow. …” is the hope for competitors then they are looking in the wrong place. They may talk it for some techno audience [open like PS3, X box, or Wii], but this is not how they will compete successfully with Apple.

    My bet the best competitor in the long run will be China who will limit Apple’s growth without Apple transferring technology or delaying Apple deployment until equivalent Chinese technologies emerge, thereby creating their own Apple eco-system. Look to cars, motorcycles, and aircraft for some leads.

  3. “take advantage of Apple’s weakness, its reluctance to abandon premium pricing.”

    I’m not quite sure I follow this one – with the entry point of the iPhone at $99 and the contract-less iPod Touch at $199, that’s not exactly premium. Also, if you look back on the evolution of the iPod itself, those pricing tiers steadily dropped over the years.

    “If you look at today’s iPod touch, for example, compared to the first iPods, there are huge differences.”

    If we’re talking about the original iPod, the one that started it all, then yes, there are huge differences. However, Apple steadily added and refined the iPod with each generation – and brought their userbase along and grew it – until they did something truly different in the iPod Touch. However, the key here is that the new iPod Touch is MORE consistent – with the iPhone. The capabilities of it have steadily been narrowing with its 3G sibling, and I expect that trend to continue (shame about no camera in the latest revision, though). So we’ll see the iPhone/iPod touch platform homogenize more.

    Android suffers from major lack of consistency already, and not just in phone featuresets, but phones shipping different libraries, interfaces, versions – it’s just like Linux (suprise!) but without the package management. Rather than have a unified vision and design requirements, Android is more like a collection of bits Google has tossed out there for manufacturers to make what they will of it. It may end up in more places, but it won’t be a strong platform like the iPhone. It will sweep up the niches, but not the mainstream.

  4. Apple and RIM will both be strong in this round of the battle for SmartPhone platform dominance.

    When just looking at the figures for SmartPhones, the role of the iPod Touch is overlooked.For many a cheap basic phone + iPod Touch = SmartPhone.So we need to add in the iTouch figures to see the platform’s true strength, which by my reckoning is now over 60 million. No other platform offers developers that large a target.

    Worldwide the Android numbers will look great over the next 1-2 years with the take up by the major Chinese networks. This however isn’t a market for most western developers. Still Android looks good for second place in the US consumer market after its tie-up with Verizon but it is way behind the iPhone in what it offers for the corporate marketplace.

    While RIM should continue to dominate the messaging market, there are too many businessmen with iPhones for Apple not to make inroads in the corporate market. So the battle there is now for third place. Palm with the iTunes sync fiasco has killed its chance (discussed in more detail in Windows Mobile 6.5 isn’t competitive. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for Nokia’s Maemo to establish itself, particularly in niche markets.

  5. I really think you’re underestimating the consumers need for consistency and the effect a large number of options causes.

    It was one of the things drummed into me in the business and marketing courses I’ve done.

    A consumer will repeatedly buy an “average” product, provided they get what they expect and consider it value. If they get good coffee one day and a great one the next, they’d even switch to a place that consistently makes good coffee because they know what they’ll get.

    I’ve also heard of studies where customers will leave a store if faced with too many options. Give them less options, less information and they’re more likely to make a purchase. To much choice and they’re too easily overwhelmed. I’ve even noticed myself doing this.

    Personally, I think Android will lose people on the myriad of options and the inconsistency of the interface and platform. It’s up to each phone developer which version of Android they use, how they skin it and the apps people develop may not even be compatible across all Android versions and/or phones.

    If Google want it to be a success, they really need to dictate the look, feel and the Android version installed on all phones so that all apps work identically across all Android phones. If they don’t do this, they don’t have a “brand” to speak of.

  6. I’m not quite sure I follow this one – with the entry point of the iPhone at $99 and the contract-less iPod Touch at $199, that’s not exactly premium.

    The price with contract is meaningless. The iPhone is very expensive, certainly here in the UK and everywhere else that I’ve seen.


  7. “the more iPhone grows in importance, the more discontent over the closed nature of its platform will grow”

    As the number of people on Earth grows, the more females (and males) we’ll have. I have no doubt that the iPhone has weaknesses that can be exploited by the competition. Growing in importance isn’t one of them.

    If the iPhone ecosystem is so closed, how did all those apps and hardware accessories get into it?

  8. If the iPhone ecosystem is so closed, how did all those apps and hardware accessories get into it?

    Developers live with the restrictions, but the restrictions exist.


  9. The iPhone/iPod Ecosystem is “closed” only to malcontents and disruptive influences. Otherwise, the iPhone/iPod Ecosystem is pretty WIDE OPEN to developers compared to the competition. This is why so many apps have been developed for the iPhone/iPod. This is why there are so many 3rd party accessories built for the iPhone/iPod. This is why so much music and so many movies are on the iPhone/iPod. This is why so many people let iTunes manage their content.

    The iPhone does not have to win in marketshare. The iPhone just has to be profitable. Apple’s mantra is profit. As a shareholder, I applaud this. Thus, Apple would be content with snagging 2 percent of the cell phone market – yet having a larger profit than Nokia or RIM or Microsoft or Motorola, etc. etc.

    Competition is great. Apple welcomes it. All Apple has to do is make the greatest products it can for itself. Then the world will follow it. One cannot say Apple has a monopoly when it has so much competition.

  10. The way I see it, “mobile platform war” is going on on two fronts. One is the domestic type – here in USA. This is Apple’s home turf, and they will probably continue to dominate it simply because of how driven the market here is by trends and aesthetics. In the *world* mobile platform war however, I do not see Apple dominating anything. Apple has never really been big outside of North America, and with cellular technology already being leaps-and-bounds beyond what is available here, and higher overall tech-awareness (personal opinion), the global population simply won’t go for Steve’s form-over-function device.
    On top of that Apple’s pricing of their phone is simply laughable. HTC Hero is given away free with a 2 year contract in UK and Germany already. This again, is the issue with how much “disposable” cash there is in US – the same phone is coming to Sprint this months and we will have to pay around $200 for it! But that is a whole new subject. Bottom line is: I believe Android / Chrome platform will dominate the global mobile market.

  11. With 85k apps, will the average consumer even think about the “closed nature of its platform?”

  12. I’d agree with George, its more than just the device its the whole way there is a coherent management of apps and all media available, easily delivered and updated via itunes. Other devices are coming onto the market trying to be iphone clones but the companies behind them just dont have the delivery mechanism or the user base of the iTMS.

    And of course there is abit of a gold rush going on in the app store, developers scrambling to write apps to cash in, which fuels more consumers buying because of the diverse range of apps available.

    I also dont subscribe to the ‘not suitable for corporate use’, its ships with cisco vpn which is the preferred choice of many medium and large scale organisations which means you can get onto corporate networks.

    I have had mine a year and I am still not bored of it, it is light years ahead of any phone that existed before and exists now.


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