One of the things that’s often baffled me is how personally people take their decision to own either an iOS or an Android device. Just look at the comments section on any tech site (or don’t, on second thought) and you’ll see enthusiasts trashing one another over their decision to buy the product of one for-profit corporation instead of the product of another for-profit corporation. It’s all very silly at first glance, but you have to consider that people aren’t just arguing about smartphones and tablets — they’re arguing about what the future of computing will be.
First, recall why Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson said Jobs wanted to declare “thermonuclear” war against Google (GOOG) over Android in the first place: Because he believed that Google had “stolen” Apple’s (AAPL) iOS interface and was spreading it around “promiscuously” by letting any device manufacturer use it free of charge. For Jobs, this was an unforgivable sin because he thought it essentially debased all the hard work that Apple had put into building a tightly controlled software experience that could now be copied and bastardized by inferior OEMs that lacked the creativity and attention to detail that Jobs believed was critical to the future of the industry.
And Jobs had very good reason to believe in this philosophy of controlling user experience on both the hardware and software end since it helped him remake Apple into the tech dynamo it is today. Apple fans love their devices’ clean interfaces, their comparatively bug-free software and their sleek, high-quality hardware designs. None of this would have been possible if Jobs had decided to “promiscuously” license out OS X or iOS to make a little extra cash — he had a vision for how he wanted a computer to look, feel and function, and he executed it better than anyone in history.
Google, however, is much more interested in spreading its popular suite of mobile apps (Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, etc.) onto as many devices as possible. And just as Jobs had success in executing his vision for a controlled user experience, Google has been very successful in making sure that people rely on its apps as part of their daily lives. As a side benefit to everyone else, the rise of Android has also led to a bounty of low-cost smartphones and tablets that have brought the mobile Internet to people who might otherwise have been unable to pay top dollar for Apple’s assorted iOS products.
And this all brings us back to the reasons people feel so strongly about their loyalties to iOS and Android. iOS fans love that their products “just work” and that they don’t have to deal with any of the unpredictability and inconsistency that’s inherent in the Android experience. Android fans, meanwhile, are willing to tolerate these things because they love the large variety of device types they have to choose from, as well as the ability to more customize Android to their own liking. Or put another way, preferring iOS to Android may come down to the age-old question of how much you’re willing to sacrifice freedom for security, and vice-versa.
So which approach is “better?” It’s tough to say, although we can look at the drawbacks that each approach has from a business perspective. For Google the downside is that the Android experience becomes fragmented on multiple types of different devices that have huge variations in quality. Unlike with the iPhone, you can’t just go into a store and ask for an “Android phone” and know precisely what to expect from it. What’s more, the freedom that Google gives OEMs to add their own skins onto the core Android experience means consumers must sift through horrors such as MotoBlur before they find a device they like.
For Apple, the downside isn’t as obvious, but it’s a much bigger potential threat. Put simply, Apple’s top-down approach to owning the software and hardware experience only works as long as Apple stays on top of its game. Think of it like this: If Samsung comes out with a crappy Android device, it doesn’t mean the end of the Android platform because it’s just as likely that another manufacturer such as HTC or LG will pick up the slack and make a device that succeeds where its rival’s had failed. But if Apple starts getting a reputation for making Apple Maps-style blunders, it won’t have a third party to come in and bail it out with a fresh set of ideas.
This is basically what happened with RIM (RIMM), which started falling behind toward the end of the last decade before completely falling apart over the past two years. That’s not to say that Apple is anywhere close to being in danger of a RIM-style collapse — the company did sell almost 50 million smartphones last quarter after all — but rather to show just how quickly an industry heavyweight can crumble under competitive pressure if it isn’t always on its toes. After all, remember that RIM still had a 43% share of the American smartphone market just three years ago; today it’s fallen below 10%.
From this perspective, it’s easy to see why Jobs was so ruthlessly demanding of perfection from both himself and his employees during his life. After all, if you’re going to ask your users to sacrifice some freedom of choice (i.e., no Apple “phablets”) in order to have the best and most consistent experience, then you’d better deliver all the time because they can turn on you very quickly if you don’t.