As official details of Google’s new smartphone OS finally came from the company’s I/O conference in San Francisco yesterday, it must have dawned on most users – including Steve Jobs and his cult of ardent iPhone lovers – that this was a key turning point in smartphone development.
While the iPhone, through good tech and not a little hype, has drummed up interest in smartphones among even non-techies in the past two years, the arrival of Android 2.2, known as Froyo, from June this year clearly pushes Google-based phones ahead of the early leader.
As Mashable describes it, it is a “slap in the face” for Apple.
In a nutshell, Android 2.2 makes Google-based phones faster and more powerful with added features.
Froyo also makes existing Android phones run faster – up to 4x faster, according to early reports. Other useful features that the iPhone doesn’t have: native Wi-Fi and USB tethering and native Web apps (seven reasons why Android 2.2 is better).
In comparison, Apple seems to have fallen into a comfort zone in the 18 months that Android has been on small screens, happy that its closed system of apps and cool hardware will bring in endless revenue as it seeks to keep competition out.
A sign of its playing catchup: Apple only recently ‘demo’d’ multi-tasking on its upcoming OS 4.0, a good five months after current Google Nexus One users started switching between a browser, Twitter, Facebook and SMSes seamlessly.
To rub salt to Apple wounds, Android-based phones have overtaken Apple’s iPhone to be the no.2 smartphone behind Blackberrys in US sales charts.
So, how has it come to this, and why is this a good thing for consumers?
Open vs closed
Two years ago, the iPhone was heralded as the biggest thing in the tech world, by both your usual Apple fanboys and an Apple-loving media (though the two are often indistinguishable). Today, the same magic toy is seen as a locked down piece of gear that kills consumer choices.
The main reason: people have seen through the rhetoric and found an alternative to Apple’s closed system. Jobs and co. decide how you interact with the phone, they decide what software you can use and they decide to brick your “jail-broken” phone through updates.
Is it so unreasonable for users to desire a keyboard (like on the Motorola Droid/Milestone) as an alternative to a touchscreen? Why can’t you have root access to your phone to do what you like with your device? Why can’t you run software not sold by a central store controlled by Apple (and we don’t just mean porn, Steve).
And let’s come to the one debate that has crystallised the difference between Google’s open-source, bottom-up approach and Apple’s iPhone/App Store: Flash.
It’s not just about how good Flash is, or if it’s proprietary to Adobe. Why should users need to choose HTML5 from Adobe’s Flash, which powers much of the Web’s multimedia elements now?
As Mashable put it:
The choice to view Flash content is one example of this “openness.” Although Google vigorously supports HTML5, it’s maintained Flash support because it allows them to serve the needs of users; it’s “do as you like,” not “do as I say.” The company loses no developers and alienates no users with this strategy.
There you have it. Google is winning because it has given consumers and developers choice – something that Apple has eschewed in its all-consuming need for market control.
You’d think Jobs has learnt his lesson from the old Apple Mac days. Why the Wintel PC won was not because it was technically better, or easier to use. Rather, there was choice for consumers, whether they wanted to buy from IBM or Compaq or a Funan Centre brand called Pineapple.
The one thing Apple has going for it now is its apps, which are still more numerous than Android’s. But it’ll be no surprise to see developers jumping on the Android bandwagon because it is more flexible, powerful and open.
To be fair, Android has its share of problems, like fragmentation. Developers will incur cost and time coming up with apps for different versions of Android, which now include version 1.6 for the likes of the Motorola Dext as well as many devices that will run on Android 2.1 for a while (most high-end models except the Nexus One).
But developing for different OSes is nothing new to developers – just ask how they did when Symbian was on top.
It’s also rather sad to see Apple fans bringing up the idea that one OS for all – theirs – makes things easier for developers to focus. If that’s true, shouldn’t everyone be on the Windows 7 bandwagon instead of the Mac OS?
What happens now?
Much now depends on how well Apple’s iPhone OS 4.0 does when it is launched with the upcoming iPhone, which has garnered no little bad press in revealing Apple’s draconian ways in dealing with leaked information.
From what everyone has heard now, the OS 4.0 will play catchup to Google’s Froyo, which will be rolled out from next month on the Nexus One. HTC has said its phones launched this year will have Froyo in the second half of this year.
By that time, you’d also start to see more of Gingerbread, Go0gle’s update to Froyo (short for frozen yogurt, by the way, as part of its food-based code names).
This means Apple needs to come up with a killer iPhone fast. Its halo gone, now that its “closed” model so-loved just months ago is being lambasted, it will find it tough swimming against the tide that has come in the shape of Android.
For consumers, this is good news. It’s an end of one company’s domination of the market (and hopefully, the endless ra-ra in much of the media), and it’s the beginning of more choices for smartphone users.
Like before, Jobs and co. have forged new ground with some good tech. But developers and users are far better off without their “my way or the highway” method of doing business.