What Will It Take To Dethrone The iPhone?

The mobile industry is exploding. In just a few short years, everybody will have a smart phone. A tiny, internet connected, mini computer right in their pocket. As each month passes, we learn more and more about what the future of this industry holds, and what the mobile handset landscape will look like. If one thing is for certain, it’s that nothing is for certain.

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As it stands right now, Apple is king with consumers. Though not the first ones to market with an internet connected mobile device (the Blackberry has been around for a long time, and still holds the majority of the smartphone market share), Apple appears to be the first to really understand what the average, non-corporate consumer wants. A true mini computer. An open device that can play music, run applications, take photos, and provide a pleasant web browsing experience. And they did it in true Apple fashion, making the device extremely easy to use. As a result, the iPhone has become extremely popular with consumers, and is widely considered “the device to have”.

With the majority of people still without a smartphone, much of the market remains up for grabs. Apple’s competitors are scrambling to catch up, trying to ensure that they they get a piece of the pie. But, one very important question lingers. What can Apple’s competitors offer that would give the average consumer a reason to buy their device instead of buying an iPhone? To me, the reasons are few, and becoming fewer.

(I’d love to hear your reasons in the comments. So please, chime in.)

A comparable feature set

This pretty much goes without saying. Any challenger to the iPhone crown must offer similar features to that of the iPhone. It is very unlikely that a competing device will lure anybody away from the iPhone if it is missing a feature that is now expected to be there. The device must be capable of running apps, taking photos, playing music, etc, for it even to be considered.

A better network

AT&T’s network leaves much to be desired. Having never been an AT&T customer, I can only relay the opinions of my friends and family who are AT&T customers. However, their opinions are one in the same. I’ve not heard a single word of praise when it comes to AT&T’s network. All of my friends and family with iPhones have expressed frustration that the device they love is frequently crippled by a network that is spotty and congested.

It’s no secret that Apple has an exclusive agreement with AT&T, and that agreement has an expiration date. Rumors have been circulating about a jump to another carrier, possibly Verizon, sometime next year. The more wireless carriers offering the iPhone, the less valid of a reason this will become for not purchasing one.

A comparable application ecosystem

Competing devices will need to have an application ecosystem that is at least comparable to the iPhone’s. This is no small task. There are over 100,000 applications in the App Store. Sure, several offer the same functionality, and many are of very poor quality. However, nobody can argue with Apple’s tag line of “There’s a app for that”. There really is an application, in most cases many, for everything you could possibly want to do with your iPhone.

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Given their head start, beating Apple at this game will not be easy. Google’s Android OS currently stands the best chance of challenging Apple on this front, with over 10,000 applications already available. The Android OS is open, and capable of running on hardware from any manufacturer. In addition, applications written for Android are capable of running on any device that runs the OS (for the most part). Next year is going to be a big one for Android, with several new devices coming to market from many different manufacturers. Some analysts are even predicting that the number of Android devices in the hands of consumers will surpass the number of iPhones by 2012. This will no doubt attract more application developers to the platform.

However, Android has its own set of challenges awaiting. The fact that manufacturers are free to run Android on devices with very different hardware specifications (screen size, input controls, etc) poses a major challenge for application developers. Perhaps the risk of rendering thousands of existing Android applications useless by releasing a device with dramatically different hardware specs will be enough to convince manufacturers not to do it. Perhaps Google will provide a set of Android APIs that can help application developers deal with this issue. Perhaps a set of best practices will emerge as a guide for developers looking to tackle this issue. Perhaps we’ll see something similar to the PC application market in the mid-late 90’s (and the Blackberry application market today), where only certain devices will be capable of running certain applications. Only time will tell if these issues will prevent the development of the Android application ecosystem.

A killer feature

One wild card that is always in play is the killer feature. Apple’s competitors are only one, innovative, killer feature away from stealing the spotlight for themselves. By “killer feature”, I mean a feature so awesome that when you see it in action, you say to yourself, “I need one of those!”.

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Version 2.0 of the Android OS took a stab at this with the introduction of Google Maps Navigation. A fantastic feature, Google Maps Navigation morphs your mobile device into a fully functional GPS unit, complete with a synthesized voice telling you where to go, real time traffic information, and several map overlays showing you the location of everything from ATMs to gas stations. But, is this a killer feature? Frankly, I’m not sure. But, its announcement was enough to cause a significant drop in the stock price of traditional GPS manufacturers, and it certainly has potential.

An incredibly easy to use device

Making devices that are intuitive and easy to use has always been one of Apple’s strengths. Look no further than the iPod for an example of this. Competing devices will need to be as easy to use as the iPhone is to appeal to the average consumer.

How do I get my music onto the device? How to I get the photos I take off? These operations should be simple and intuitive. Motorola’s new Android 2.0 device, the DROID, is seriously lacking in this area. Several steps are required to store data on or pull data off of the device:

  • Attach the device to your computer
  • Use the device’s menu system to instruct it to mount itself as an external drive
  • Locate the files on your hard drive that you would like to store on the device
  • Copy and paste the files from your hard drive onto the device
  • Unmount the device

For the iPhone, the list of steps is much smaller.

  • Attach the device to your computer, and let iTunes do the rest

Are the steps required to store data on the DROID too much to handle for an experienced computer user. No, of course not. But, there is still a large percentage of people out there who would struggle with completing those tasks. Believe me, I know. Many are family and friends of mine who I help complete “simple” tasks on their computers all of the time. These people make up a significant portion of the market. If you want them to buy your device, then you have to make it stupid simple to use.

Summary

Apple has set the bar high with the iPhone, very high. While I can think of several reasons why developers and techies would prefer a different device, I can’t think of many reasons why the average consumer would. And, there are a lot more average consumers than there are geeks.

But make no mistake, Apple’s competitors have the iPhone in their sights. The tide can shift very quickly in this market, especially since most people get a new phone every couple of years. Will the iPhone challengers be able make a dent in the iPhone’s market share? Or, will the iPhone be the de-facto standard for smart phones? Only time will tell.