Going off the Scrooge McDuck-sized piles of cash that the iPhone has made Apple over the years, you’d think that making money from selling $700 smartphones is easy. But as the list of failed smartphone companies grows, it’s increasingly obvious that doing what Apple does isn’t simple.
Plenty has been written about Apple’s secret sauce over the years, and I’m not going to try and rehash all that. But I think comparing the iPhone 5S to Android smartphones from 2013 can give us a relevant example of where Apple shines, and the rest fall down.
Apple just released iOS 11 to the general public, and if you read down through the release notes, you’ll see something surprising. The iPhone 5S, first released in 2013, is getting the latest software update at the same time as the newest iPhone. How many Android phones from 2013 are getting Android 8.0 Oreo?
As far as I can work out, none. Certainly none of the flagship Android devices from 2013 are getting Oreo. The Galaxy S4, launched a few months before the iPhone 5S, is wallowing on Android 6.0 Marshmallow. The HTC One M7 is stuck a version further back, on Lollipop.
Even though Google is trying to fix the problem by making new features accessible to older versions of Android, the underlying issue remains. Android phones just aren’t designed to last for a long time, which itself is part of a bigger problem. The reason people like Apple devices is because they feel like they’re buying into a service, not just a device. Buy whichever iPhone you feel like right now, and Apple’s going to make sure that it provides the best experience until the hardware is completely dead. Buy an iCloud storage plan, use iMessages across all your devices, and listen to Apple Music on any iPhone — not just one made more recently than 2015.
The issue of software fragmentation on its own isn’t the problem with Android. It’s the overall experience that customers get, and terrible software updating is just a symptom, not the root cause.
Most of the problems with Android come from the multiple cogs in the process. Phone services — things like the core messaging app, preferred cloud storage system, or digital AI — are not aligned with the phone’s software or hardware. On a brand-new Samsung phone, you’ve got duplicate AIs, duplicate cloud backup services, and five different messaging apps clamouring for your attention. Try explaining to your parents why they should use the Gmail app or the phone’s default Mail app, or why the cloud backup they made on their HTC isn’t going to magically fix their new Note 8.
I think that’s what Google is trying to solve with its acquisition of HTC’s Pixel division. For the first time since Microsoft’s aborted Windows Phone experiment, we’re going to have a company other than Apple making software and hardware. More importantly, we’re finally going to get a level playing field for the Android vs iOS showdown that we all want.
Google needs to be careful here, though. The temptation will be to focus so hard on making a killer device, it forgets about support. The key to Apple’s success is detail and consistency, across the board.