JR Raphael

Apple vs. Android: It's all relative

June 21, 2010 5:26 PM EDT

Apple vs. AndroidComparing Apple and Android is kind of like comparing apples and oranges: They're two drastically different versions of the same family of product, and they're both competing for a spot in your shopping cart. Also, the apples are only allowed to be eaten in the way the grocer specifies, while the oranges are free to be sliced, diced, or mixed up any way you want.

All right, so grocery stores don't actually put restrictions on the fruit-buying public. But you get my point: We're talking about two different approaches for two different tastes. And they're both competing for attention within the same market space.

For those of us who watch this market -- the smartphone market, that is, not the fruit one -- it's an exciting time. Things are changing, options are expanding, and the selection is becoming less homogenous with each passing month. But pointing that out can get an awful lot of fingers pointed in your direction (I'll let you figure out which finger is being used).

Last week, I wrote a blog here at Android Power entitled "Apple's fallen and it can't get up." In the story, I discussed some new data suggesting Android-based mobile Web usage was skyrocketing while iPhone-based usage was slipping. The data matches up with numerous other recent reports showing that Android adoption is growing exponentially, helping the platform increasingly inch upward in terms of its overall mobile market share.

This should come as no surprise: Without even getting into the merits of one platform over another, Android is available on many devices across all major U.S. carriers; regardless of what it is you want, you can find an Android-powered phone that fits the bill. The iPhone, in contrast, is a single device offered on a single carrier. That's what's for dinner; you can take it or you can leave it.

Still, some people took issue with my assessment. We could debate the topic until our toes turn blue, but there were two commonly raised points in particular that I thought were worth exploring in greater, non-blue-toed detail.

Counterargument #1: But Apple's Doing Fine

One common response, frequently expressed with cheery words like "stupid," "moron," and "flugwart" -- yeah, I'm not sure what that last one means either -- is that I somehow suggested Apple was failing and doomed to land in the dodo pool any day now.

Irked reader James S., for example, wrote the following:

"Sure, poor Apple, on the decline. That must be why they have just surpassed Microsoft as the most valuable company in the world. Or maybe it's because they are the largest single computer manufacturer in the world, with the Macintosh outselling every other brand."

Here's the thing: Saying that the market share is shifting and saying that the company is floundering are two completely different things. As I pointed out in the comments section of last week's story, what I said was the former: that Android is gaining market share in America at a faster pace than the iPhone, a point supported by data from numerous analytics firms. I never suggested that Apple was doomed as a result. The company, as we all know, is doing quite well. What we're talking about here is relative growth and its impact on the overall U.S. mobile phone market. There's certainly enough consumer demand to serve multiple mobile platforms, regardless of which is ahead of the other in positioning.

Counterargument #2: The iPhone 4 Will Change Everything

Our second common counterargument is that sales of Apple's new iPhone 4 will shift significant market share back away from Android. Anonymous Reader A, we'll call him, said the following:

"Well, I guess in a way Apple has fallen considering their ordering systems were yet again CRUSHED by iPhone 4 demand. I think they'll be able to get back up though."

Commenter Slyfox, meanwhile, said this:

"Apple fans have known for quite some time that the new iPhone was coming out, and that is the reason sales have been sluggish."

Indeed, Apple's new iPhone is clearly selling well. It's too soon to know what kind of effect it could have on the market in the long run, but as Slyfox pointed out, Apple fans are the main ones who have been waiting for the new phone. Apple fans are the ones rushing to preorder the new iPhone. Well, Apple fans also already own Apple mobile devices. And trading in an iPhone 3G for an iPhone 4 doesn't change anything in terms of market share.

I'm not the only one considering this perspective. Last Wednesday, The New York Times noted that Apple is "struggling to maintain the same clear-cut lead over rivals that it had in the past," calling the "growing portfolio" of Android phones a "significant threat" to its dominance. As for the preorder insanity, a wireless analyst from Forrester Research told The Times he'd be surprised if any "meaningful percentage" of the early iPhone orders came from customers who didn't already own previous iPhone models.

Sure, new customers are bound to buy the iPhone 4 as well, especially once it's on store shelves. But the question is whether Apple's new iPhone can manage to attract enough new customers to outpace those flocking to Android-powered devices -- high-profile phones like the HTC EVO 4G and the upcoming Motorola Droid X. That's the only way the iPhone 4 could reverse the shifting market share trends. And, as I said last week, given the one-against-many scenario, it'd take a truly magical and revolutionary feat to pull that off.

Or, as our aforementioned Forrester analyst puts it, "The reality is that in the long term, the Android market share is going to catch up."

Apple vs. Android: The Big Picture 

Now, does all of this take anything away from Apple's success or its ability to generate a handsome profit? Of course not. The company has a wildly devoted fan base and is obviously in no danger of disappearing. But that's not the same thing as keeping pace with its competitors in overall U.S. mobile market growth, and that's what we've been discussing.

Still, as I've said before, the competition ultimately benefits us all: iPhone users, Android fans, even the approximately 17.4 people who actually use Microsoft's Kin phone. As the market becomes more competitive, manufacturers and programmers have to work harder to attract our interest and earn our dollar. And that means more options, more value, and more innovation, regardless of what phone you prefer.

Even a flugwart like me can see that.

Author JR Raphael writes the new Android Power blog at Computerworld. You can find him on Facebook: facebook.com/The.JR.Raphael