The iPhone is to Smartphones as IE6 was to Browsers

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

17 Replies to “The iPhone is to Smartphones as IE6 was to Browsers”

  1. Aaron:

    By and large, I agree with what your saying. One dynamic I don’t think you touched on is the Apple appliance vs. Google platform approaches. No doubt, Apple has had some major fails when it comes to supporting developers. OTOH, they have been highly successful in terms of making the iPhone a relatively seamless environment as it relates to the user experience.

    Am hearing anecdotes that a developer cannot create an app that will surely run across all Android platforms. If this is truly the case, am wondering if this might prove to be a barrier to widespread consumer adoption as well as posing some developer resource challenges.


  2. Android will dominate the market in three years. Apple isn’t going away, but they’re not open enough to compete with the Google Beast.

    1. If by “dominate the market” you mean “make zero incremental revenue for Google”, then sure.

      iPhone is a business, which makes money. Android is a hobby, which makes Google nothing.

      What happens when companies use the pile of cash they make from a monopoly in one market to cross-subsidise into and dominate another market? If you don’t know the answer, go ask Microsoft…

      1. Google will profit from Android, because their licensed for all manner of advertising on it. The Android will be a profitable product for them, as, I’m sure, will Chrome OS.

  3. I don’t understand the comparison of phones to PCs. Whether the OS or the browser, what happened then is not relevant to this totally different class of device.

    Google ripped their playbook from Windows Mobile, and they did so in order to kill Windows Mobile. In this they will likely succeed, but Android itself is just the next WinMo platform. Badly fragmented, with varying user experiences as hardware vendors seek a competitive edge (i.e., why buy their Android phone over someone else’s?).

    I don’t see how Android gets any further than WinMo did.

    As for Apple’s “draconian” measures, this matters only to geeks and “open” fanatics. To consumers the phone is wide open, with tons of choice and flexibility, and it all “just works”. Even Robert Scoble commented that Apple’s supposed “walled garden” is a wall only about 4″ high.

    1. Also, quoting Scoble to me is not likely to garner any points. The man is an idiot and has shown no demonstration of competence in the technology space. He’s a little kid with shiny toys and that’s about as far as his expertise goes.

      1. Better to focus on the quote than the one quoted. Scoble’s a media whore, but with 125K apps, tons of accessories, etc. in the iPhone ecosystem it’s clear Apple’s “wall” is very easy to get over. From a consumer/user perspective there’s nothing draconian about it. That point is valid with or without the quote.

      2. “He’s a little kid with shiny toys and that’s about as far as his expertise goes.”

        But you seem to be forgetting that that is precisely what the general public are and how they see this new technology. It’s OK to be impressed by Google if: 1) you are a geek and 2) you refuse to buy into what Apple do. Yesterday all your Christmases must have come at once. New, “open”, handset, no Steve Jobs, great geeky launch. But don’t extrapolate what you want to happen with what will happen. Let’s see how your geek dreams work out after a year shall we?

  4. I get your general drift, and while the comparison of IE6 to the iPhone is provocative, I don’t think it’s a very good analog for a lot of reasons making it kind of tenuous to say Apple is where Redmond was 10 years. It’s just not the same. At all.

    Also, I find it continually perplexing that we as tech-watchers always have to talk about things in terms of “winner take all” like this is a zero sum game where we’ll gleefully be dominated by a single company or provider.

    I think it would be great if their were a multitude of devices and with various OS’s or different implementations of them.

    It will be interesting. Clearly Google is competing with Apple, here too.

  5. What happens when there are 10s of different models with different screen sizes/specs from different manufacturers running different versions of Android, which features locked down/modified by the carriers to suit their own interests?

    The lockdown Apple currently has is more a strength than a weakness in this regard. Developers only have to design & support their apps to one set of specs, for one device. One very well designed device. Attached to one very popular marketplace.

    The current review process horror stories are ridiculous, but they’ll change it when they have to (hopefully soon, from the competition from the Nexus).

    Apple can also work out deals with other carriers. And they’re going to have to, the way AT&T has fumbled things is beyond words.

    Comparing the iPhone to the browser market and saying Apple is going to sit back and do nothing while a competitor takes marketshare will get you some Diggs but is laughable.

    People used IE6 because they pretty much had to, Microsoft started improving it _after_ they were bleeding marketshare to far superior browsers.

    People use the iPhone because they want to, not because there’s no alternative.

    Don’t forget this is a company that dropped a top-selling product (iPod Mini) for a better one. Any other company would have milked it for all it’s worth while their competitor’s caught up. What makes you think they’re going to sit back on this one?

  6. I don’t agree with the browser analogy. People hate Microsoft just because they are Microsoft. People looooooove Apple, well, just because they are Apple.

    From the early videos I’ve seen the Nexus One is just doing what the iPhone was able to do 3 years ago with some small differences like the camera flash and fancy, animated backgrounds and of course the backing of Google, but I couldn’t imagine that being enough to steal current iPhone users.

    Android will gain market share by sheer numbers. ATT has ~75 million subs, the rest of the major carriers have ~170 million combined (source: ). I would expect Android to overtake Apple based on that stat alone.

    The fact that it took a company over 3 years to get CLOSE to where the iPhone is shows how far ahead Apple was. I’ve been a WM user for years and it completely sucks in comparison IMO.

  7. “While Apple sits back and does incremental enhancements and call them major releases, the scrappy Android will take market share if given the opportunity.”

    You are being ironic with this quote, right?

    Given that Google claimed yesterday to have done “four major releases of Android” in a year – “major releases” which were, in fact, mostly quietly fixing the glaring holes in the OS.

  8. With Android on phones made by “multiple manufacturers offering multiple models to multiple demographic segments across multiple carriers,” much choice for the consumer. As smartphone ownership increases, people chose Android over lockdown iPhone, relegating iPhone to some minor, niche position. As an example of the importance of market share dominance, Google’s Chrome browser came out on Windows over a year before Macs got it. And Google makes money on those iPhone browsers homepaged to Google.

  9. “Conventional wisdom suggests that the fat days of Apple and AT&T operating in lockstep are over.”
    I think there is not a single smartphone manufacturer who is not dreading the day the iPhone loses it’s exclusivity deal with AT&T. The iPhone on AT&T is the single biggest reason for people not going with it. Oh that and it’s from Apple (from a certain minority who just won’t buy it for that very reason).

    “Conventional business wisdom suggests that the iPhone must radically alter the playing field with this release to stay competitive in the market.”
    Apple is not a company you should apply the phrase “Conventional Wisdom” as they have taken such wisdom and, time after time, proven it wrong. And you seem to be forgetting here that Apple have already “radically altered the playing field”. If this were not true then why is everyone and their dog spending all this time and money trying to make their own version of the iPhone? Nexus One – an iPhone with Open Source’s best attempt at cloning it – good luck with that.

  10. I think you don’t have any idea about “Flashes”. The cammera flash is useless 1’5 meters away from the phone (maybe you are one of those that take photos at night with flash to cathedrals). It also raises the battery consumption.

    Flash is good, but not necessary. The trend is to embed contents straight on the browser in its native formta (mpeg4 for instance).

    IE6 was a browser with no business model. It only was included in the operative system. iPhone strength is not hardware, is its softwae platform and easy install, copied by all the other contenders. And still there is no one that compares with its superb touch screen (have you used any HTC o Windows mobile?). Nokia with Maemo is better than android, and the reason is user experience (not hardware).

    Please, read this…

  11. I’ve been developing software for Nokia and WinMo devices for over 3 years now. The projects I worked on required these platform. As a developer I know each platform has its pros and cons. And considering the cons of other platforms, the rules Apple enforces on developers are not that bad if you are not developing a malicious app.

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