The iPhone is to Smartphones as IE6 was to Browsers

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A few years ago when Apple stormed on the scene with their new, revolutionary phone that they called the iPhone, a moment in history occurred that would change the mobile space. It suddenly became possible for rich web browsing from a mobile phone. It became possible to listen to music in a natural way on your phone. Touch screens became the norm.

A year later, Apple announced their second generation phone, the iPhone 3G. With it, they opened up the ecosystem even more by allowing developers to build third party apps that could run on the iPhone. 50 million apps later, it is still the best thing about the iPhone.


Apple made some mistakes during this process, as it would naturally be assumed they would as a relative newbie to the phone manufacturing world. They took too long to open up the device to third party apps and when they did, they employed draconian and inconsistent rules that were undocumented, uncommunicated and, generally frustrating to companies building apps for the iPhone.

When their third generation phone, the iPhone 3GS emerged, there were some improvements (such as cut and paste, video and voice control), but the more frustrating aspects of the device remained unchanged. The iPhone still doesn’t provide a flash for its camera. It still doesn’t support Flash. It still can’t be tethered as was promised (at least in the United States under AT&T).

Worse, the inherent failure of the iPhone (undoubtedly expected to be it’s greatest appeal) is the restriction of the operating system to a single Apple device. I get why. But now let’s flip the card.

Google today announced the Nexus One, a new Android-powered phone that, in the words of Good Morning Silicon Valley, is “a worthy iPhone competitor“. Actually, that’s a tame phrase. Let me give you a piece of this article titled, “Google vs. Apple: There Will be Blood”:

No single device is going to “œkill” the iPhone, and that’s not really Google’s intent anyway, iPhone users being the heavy Web traffickers that they are. But Google does have a strong interest in fostering enough competition to keep Apple from dominating the mobile market, which is why it chose the strategy it did “” providing a strong and improving platform that could support multiple manufacturers offering multiple models to multiple demographic segments across multiple carriers. Google doesn’t need to tear down the iPhone; it just needs to make sure there are plenty of attractive alternatives for smartphone shoppers who for various reasons don’t feel compelled to join the Apple-AT&T axis. As an Android flagship, unlocked but initially aligned with T-Mobile, the Nexus One fits as part of that plan.

And now it might be time to note that Google is winning this battle. Besides last years flop G1 launch with T-Mobile (I’ll be honest, the thing was a brick and ran on a very early version of Android so not surprised it really didn’t go anywhere), Verizon Wireless has just launched the Droid by Motorola and the Droid Eris by HTC. They are promising three Android phones in 2010. T-Mobile is now launching with the Nexus One and Verizon Wireless should get it this spring.

AT&T will not get an Android phone as long as they have an exclusive relationship with Apple.

The road to victory is very clear and Google has the advantage. Despite Android being open source, it’s patron saint is Google. Therefore, Google has distribution interest. The more Android phones that can be sold and made – of multiple varieties – on multiple carriers – possibly including Netbooks, the more they control the market. The more Apple fails to radicalize their roadmap with the iPhone, the more they lose the market.

Let’s go back a few years. The great browser wars of the 1990s were dwindling down as NEtscape was acquired by AOL then turned into a bastard half-breed of itself. Firefox, under leadership of the Mozilla Foundation, was blazing new paths in the browser market. Microsoft had largely cooled its heels standardizing around Internet Explorer 6. No further browsers were expected to be made. The battle had been fought, the war had been won. Microsoft ruled supreme.

That was what they thought. Meanwhile, Firefox kept making progress gradually stealing market share here or there like a rogue flitting through shadows snatching purses and wallets.

This opened the door to other browsers – Opera, Safari, eventually Google Chrome – to enter the marketplace. Microsoft realized they had sat on their heels too long and finally began building Internet Explorer 7. Internet Explorer 8 would soon follow. Internet Explorer 9 is around the corner. All of the sudden, when competition increased, Microsoft ran heavy and ran hard to keep up.

This is where Apple is going.

In about 6 months, if history teaches us anything, Apple will launch their 4th generation iPhone. Conventional wisdom suggests that the fat days of Apple and AT&T operating in lockstep are over. Conventional business wisdom suggests that the iPhone must radically alter the playing field with this release to stay competitive in the market. While the iPhone still has market share, so did IE6. While Apple sits back and does incremental enhancements and call them major releases, the scrappy Android will take market share if given the opportunity.

What are your thoughts on this extremely interesting business environment?

* Photo by ColorblindPICASSO

Google Shiny is Not as Hot as You would Think

Much has been said about Google Chrome Shiny this week. Google stormed the internet by announcing that they too had a browser that web users could be proud of. They claimed the best of all browsers while slipping in some legal language into the EULA that revoked privacy of user browsing data while using the product. That was quickly changed when their bluff was called.

Regardless, Shiny has created quite a buzz with people like Gabe Rivera, the founder of Techmeme, claiming a 14% market share of all Techmeme readers using Shiny. That may be the most dramatic number I’ve seen, but certainly folks have been bandying around their numbers as if this was a huge coup de grace.

Let me remind you of what Brad Feld said in 2006: The first 25k users are irrelevant. (Disclosure: Brad is an investor in Lijit)

Got that? Irrelevant.

They are all kicking tires. There is nothing “new” here, as far as I can tell, and anything Google is greeted with a bunch of tire kickers early on. People want to get in, test things out, see how it works and then decide on what works for them.

You’ll see another surge in market share when Shiny becomes available to the Mac, and those users will be irrelevant as well.

That is not to say that Google cannot command a noticeable market share, but there are big hurdles to overcome:

  1. The browser market is saturated already: IE7/8, Firefox 2/3, Safari, Opera, to name only a few
  2. Internet Explorer, Safari and, well, Konqueror maybe are the only gifts that keep on giving. These are the browsers that are bundled with the Operating Systems and it is the only way to ensure market share. Google needs an OS in widespread adoption to compete on this level
  3. Google says they are innovating, but there is nothing innovative about the browser. It is built on Webkit. That is, it’s Safari.
  4. Google privacy concerns will continue to keep hawks like myself away.

The real measure of success is not going to be today or tomorrow. It’s going to be in six months. After the tire kickers run their test drives and uninstall from their systems. I’m guessing they can command a solid 2% market share by June of 2008. No better than that though. It will always be a niche browser.