If the battle royale between Google and Apple for dominance in smartphones feels vaguely familiar, then you’re probably as old as I am. Back in the 1980s, Apple and Microsoft fought for dominance of computer operating systems. As today, they took opposite approaches: Apple maintained tight control over its operating system and hardware, forcing would-be partners through a tight licensing regime. Microsoft let any computer hardware license MS-DOS and later Windows…for a price.
Apple ended up selling superior, easy-to-use products. Microsoft ended up dominating the PC market and almost driving Apple out of business, despite its infinitely more buggy product.
In mobile, Apple again has complete control of a leading hardware platform (the iPhone) and is setting tough standards for anyone who wants to build apps. It’s restricting the iPhone to just one cellular network, AT&T. Google is giving its Android software away to all comers on any cellular network for free, betting that increased mobile Internet usage will give it the same dominance in the nascent mobile advertising market it has on the Web.
It puts in a new perspective NPD’s recent report that Androids outsold iPhones in the first quarter (28% to 21% of the smartphone market, with BlackBerry at 36%). You can dispute NPD’s figures, as Apple did. But you can’t dispute that Google’s made huge inroads in a very short time.
No doubt, Steve Jobs (who’s even older than me) remembers all too well how he was almost done in by Microsoft. Since he surely won’t start licensing iPhone software, he only has two ways to maintain or grow marketshare in the U.S.: constantly introduce new products (such as this summer’s iPhone upgrade); and expand beyond AT&T’s creaky network to Verizon and the other carriers. Google, meanwhile, just needs to tweak its software and sign deals.
It’s tempting to give Google the upper hand in this battle. But then, it would have been tempting to anticipate Apple’s demise in the 1980s, too.