The Android Opportunity

In just the past few weeks Steven Frank, Alex Payne, and Andre Torrez all tried switching from the iPhone to Android. All three are smart, open-minded, and eloquent regarding their reasons for trying Android. All three are developers who care about the quality and design of software and hardware.

All three found Android significantly lacking.

No doubt some iPhone owners look upon this with glee, much like sports fans watching a rival team flail. I look upon it with glum disappointment. I’ve said it before and will say it again, the best thing that could happen for Apple and iPhone owners would be for at least one strong rival to appear. Two would be even better. A monoculture benefits no one in the long run, because it’s competition that drives innovation.

I know there are new Android phones on the horizon. I know there have been some nice Android OS updates. But from my vantage point, the Android state-of-the-art is today further behind the iPhone state-of-the-art than it was when the G1 debuted last October.

Here are a few paragraphs of a piece I wrote 14 months ago regarding why I’m rooting for Android:

Google’s dependence on hardware and carrier partners puts the final product out of their control — and into the control of companies whose histories have shown them to be incompetent at design and hostile to users.

I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but my hunch is that the only way we’ll see an iPhone-caliber Android phone is if Google does what they’ve said they’re not going to do, which is to design and ship their own reference model “gPhone”. That doesn’t mean Android won’t still be successful in some sense if it remains on its current course, but that I don’t expect it to be successful in the “holy shit is this awesome!” sense that the iPhone is.

So far, alas, that seems prescient.

But so if Google isn’t going to stand up and produce the ideal Android phone, someone else needs to.

There’s a theme currently brewing in the tech press that iPhone owners are up in arms regarding Apple’s handling of the App Store. The truth is, it is a summer of discontent for the iPhone, but not for all iPhone users, not most, not even many. Most, in fact, are oblivious to the App Store controversy and complaints. Those who are upset are developers and genuine technology wonks. Those are the people who either want to switch or whose minds have at least been opened to the idea that they might want to switch. But what they want to switch to is not a middle of the road phone. They want a high end phone.

They don’t want to downgrade from the iPhone. They want to upgrade from the iPhone.

There’s a huge opportunity here for Android phone makers.1 No one is going to just suddenly catch up to Apple in terms of total sales. The iPhone has grown fast, but even so, it has taken two years of growth to get where it is today. Catching up to the iPhone in an instant — or even within a year or two — is not a feasible goal. So forget that. But there are ambitious goals that are feasible. Here’s my advice.

Start by copying what Apple has done right. Release one new phone per year, every year. Split that one phone into separate models by storage size, keeping all other specs the same. Apple has shown you can make a lot of money by charging an extra $100 for less than $100 worth of flash memory. One single phone gives developers a single device to target, and makes it easier on consumers. It also gives the press a single device to focus its attention on. (I’m looking at you, Motorola.)

You’re not going to start by taking away existing iPhone users. Not the normal ones. Normal iPhone owners have the good common sense to hang on to an expensive new phone for a few years (which I say with the self-awareness that I personally have no common sense regarding the consumption of gadgetry).

The goal should be to make a phone that is better than the iPhone. Better. Even if that means more expensive (although you should do what you can, including eat into your profit margins, to match or come close to the iPhone’s price). Remember, the original iPhone launched with a sale price of $599 and people lined up hundreds deep to get one.

As the iPhone goes mass market, it’s creating a vacuum at the high end of the market for a high-quality exclusive phone. Remember when the iPhone was new and novel? Now it’s common.

Don’t aim for the middle of the market. That seems to be what all the other Android manufacturers are doing and it’s the road to NobodyCaresAboutYourPhoneVille. So instead of trying to sell half a million phones to anyone, try to sell half a million phones to a specific target: people in the market for the latest and greatest phone in the world.

This is a story line the press will love. The press is itching to write “iPhone No Longer King of the Hill” headlines.

The phone needs to be as good as the iPhone in every possible way, including hardware build quality. Web browsing needs to be iPhone quality, not “almost iPhone quality”.

Carefully select a handful of areas where you can beat the iPhone, and then promote the hell out of these features. Over-the-air calendar, contact, and email syncing through Google services should beat MobileMe hands down, if only because MobileMe costs $100 a year and Google’s services are free.

Emphasize that Android apps are background-capable, and that there is no centralized App Store under one company’s ironclad control. There are no tales of rejected Android apps because there are no rejected Android apps.

Consider trade-offs that Apple is unlikely to make, like, say, device thickness. Beef your phone up with a bigger (and, yes, slightly thicker) battery than the iPhone’s and then make battery life a major selling point. Something along the lines of, “The iPhone’s battery life is fine for casual users, but serious users need more than just a few hours.” (You should copy Apple and seal the battery into the case, however — replaceable batteries lead to creaky, squeaky cases.)

The branding must be excellent. No logos on the front of the phone. No carrier logos anywhere on the device. If Apple can do it, so can you.

If your goal is to sell more smartphones than Apple, you’re going to fail. If your hope is to gain a strong foothold in the market with a sub-par device, you are mistaken. So aim high, and set your goals such that you can smugly claim victory with just a fraction of Apple’s unit sales. If Apple is BMW, you can be Porsche.

  1. Or perhaps better said, Android device makers, because I’m still hoping someone soon ships a good Android-based non-phone, like the iPod Touch. I’d love to have an Android device to play with, but without any contract or monthly fees. ↩︎