How Google can knock the iPhone from its perch.

How Google can knock the iPhone from its perch.

How Google can knock the iPhone from its perch.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 20 2009 1:05 PM

Can the Google Phone Be Saved?

There's still a chance to knock the iPhone from its perch. Here's how.

MyTouch from T Mobile.

I've long sung the praises of Android, Google's open-source mobile operating system. It gives you everything you'd want in a smartphone—a stylish, intuitive interface plus great programs for e-mail, the Web, and keeping your life organized. Indeed, on paper, Android looks like the best mobile OS you can buy. It packs more features and is more flexible than the BlackBerry or Windows Mobile, and because it works on lots of different phones (and even some computers), it promises to be more widely available than the Palm Pre. And how does Android stack up against Apple's iPhone? In theory, very well. The iPhone is packed with restrictions and complexities —Apple and AT&T make developers run through unnecessary hoops to get their software on the phone. Android, meanwhile, offers a wide-open platform for developers to create add-on programs, a system that you'd expect would lead to a vast, unmatched library of apps for Android phones.

But all of that's true only in theory. In reality, the iPhone and BlackBerry are dominating the sales charts. According to the research firm Canalys, the iPhone now commands nearly 14 percent of smartphone sales and BlackBerry about 21 percent. Android has only 3 percent. You could argue that's not so bad—after all, the first Android phone was launched just last fall, more than a year after the first iPhone hit the market. Plus, lots of new Android devices are on the way, so the platform is bound to attract more users. But it seems unlikely that Google's mobile market share will grow as quickly as the iPhone's—according to Canalys, iPhone usage has shot up by more than 600 percent in the last year.


Android doesn't just trail Apple in sales. The platform also lacks what you might call the iPhone's "mindshare." Even though it's far friendlier to developers, Android has failed to attract anywhere near the number of apps now clogging the iPhone. It's also just not very cool. Apple's ubiquitous marketing and unmatched industrial design have turned the iPhone into a must-have fashion accessory. Android? It's fallen into the same trap as the SanDisk Sansa, Creative Zen, the Zune, and any number of other music players—devices that are cheaper and technically every bit as capable as Apple's iPod but that no one would ever put on his Christmas list.

What, exactly, is plaguing Google's mobile OS? Can it be saved? Blogger John Gruber recently took on this question in an intelligent essay that I hope the folks at Google read carefully. Gruber argues that Google went wrong by giving handset manufacturers and carriers a great deal of control over the design and marketing of Android phones. There is no idealized "Google phone"—instead, Android devices get names like the T-Mobile G1 or the myTouch 3G, and each is marketed separately and comes with its own distinct capabilities and shortcomings. Outside handset manufacturers lack ambition—none of them even seems to be trying to match the capabilities of the iPhone, let alone to knock us down with features that far surpass those of Apple's device. The iPhone is two years old, Gruber points out. What was exciting about it is now common. A smart handset manufacturer could build a top-of-the-line Android device that outshines Apple's phone in at least a few areas—better battery life, a much better Web browser, a brighter or bigger screen, faster or more functional controls ... something that might help Android inspire gadget lust. But so far, that's not happening.

Killer Apps: Wolfenstein 3-D

What's amazing is that Google appears to be doing little to solve this problem. Google's main selling point for Android is its "openness"—whenever the company talks about why we need another mobile OS, it points to the need for a completely free platform, one that lets developers flourish and express themselves in ways they can't on other phones. This is a wonderful goal; I've often railed against Apple's jail-warden model of app development. But Google seems to regard openness as sufficient to success—and that's manifestly not true. You don't need to look at the iPhone to see that locked-down gadgets can do very well in the market. Look, instead, at the iPod. Until recently, the only place you could buy music online for the iPod was from Apple, and when you did buy music, you weren't allowed to play it on other devices. Online rights nerds like me whined about these restrictions. The rest of the world kept snapping up iPods. In short, openness didn't matter.

The same thing is playing out on Android. The platform's openness is certainly a boon for developers. You can submit an app to the Android store and have it appear on customers' phones more or less immediately—the same process takes weeks or months on the iPhone. The trouble is, even though it's easy to develop apps for Android, there aren't many incentives to do so. The iPhone's got all those ravenous customers; it's worth waiting weeks to have your program in the App Store. Without great phones—and thus without a lot of customers—developers see little reason to bother coding up programs for yet another mobile app store.

It's not too late for Android. But if Google wants its platform to be anything more than an also-ran, it needs to devote many more resources to the mobile universe. In addition to Gruber's call for high-end Android phones, I'd counsel an enormous ad campaign meant to make Android cool. Phones are social objects; they live and die on cultural perception, on our collective assessment of what carrying them can do for our style. Fortunately for Google, that kind of perception isn't set in stone—it's quite malleable, and the judicious use of advertising can easily transform a dud into a stud. (See how well a $100 million marketing budget is working for Bing!) Let's see Kanye West telling us how a fantastic Android app helped him organize his grocery list. Let's see Android product placement in movies and on TV. Let's see magazine ads that marvel over a simply gorgeous Android phone.

Perhaps Google can even run a Mac vs. PC-style campaign that points out its phone's many advantages over Apple—Android's tight integration with Gmail and other Google apps, for instance. Or remember those ads that welcomed the many customers that rival dating site eHarmony had rejected? Android could do the same thing with app developers. How about a Google Android spot starring Sean Kovacs, whose GV Mobile app was banned from the iPhone because it uses Google Voice? Or one that features Alex Sokirynsky, who created a program called Podcaster to download podcasts—let everyone that Apple has banished from its phone speak freely. I know that this sort of marketing isn't Google's style. But so what? It's time to try something new.