Building an Android-Based iPhone Killer: Doable?

By  |  Monday, August 17, 2009 at 10:51 am

androidquestionsDaring Fireball’s John Gruber has a smart post up exhorting somebody–anybody–to build an Android phone that’s better than the iPhone. As far as I can tell, no manufacturer of Android-based phones has set out to do that–Android phones are getting better, as shown by the significant improvement that T-Mobile’s myTouch 3G represents over the first-generation G1. And some Android phones sport better specs in certain areas than the iPhone, or features that the iPhone doesn’t have. But nobody’s used Android to get to an overall phone experience that’s neck-and-neck with the iPhone yet. (And the overall iPhone experience remains so remarkable that folks are willing to forgive the phone for its many limitations.)

Android has gotten off to a slower start than I expected; even so, I still think it’s likely that it’ll provide the iPhone with its stiffest competition in terms of sheer market share in the years to come. I’m less optimistic about there being lots of Android phones which are just as good as the iPhone, for the same reason that there aren’t lots of Windows PCs that are just as good as Macs–the PC-like business model behind Android encourages manufacturers to build commodity products (albeit potentially good ones), not unique and ambitious ones of the sort Gruber is hoping for.

(Which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to build something unique on Android; the best Windows laptops, such as Voodoo PC’s Envy 133, use the platform for products of Apple-like refinement and creativity. It’s just that the economics of building products on a common platform encourages those products to be…common.)

As of right now, the iPhone’s most formidable competitor in terms of overall experience is unquestionably Palm’s Pre. It’s anything but a coincidence that it’s also the smartphone that came out of the design process most similar to Apple’s approach, with one company designing the software and hardware from scratch. Very few companies will ever get that ambitious. But I hope that many companies do the next best thing: build Android phones that are so thoughtfully designed and customized that you forget they run an OS that’s available on scads of phones from scads of manufacturers.


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10 Comments For This Post

  1. Jason Cohen Says:

    I’m glad someone’s trying.

    Seems like all anyone tries to do these days is catch up. It’s refreshing to hear that someone’s actually trying to BEAT Apple.

    It’s not impossible. Blackberry used to be untouchable, don’t you remember?

  2. AlfieJr Says:

    Amazing how dense you guys are. it’s not the handset and features that you are so hung up on that make the iPhone unique and thus un-killable. it’s not even the apps which presumably other brands will eventually catch up with. instead it’s the iTunes ecosystem that seamlessly integrates the desktop and mobile everyday aspects of your life – entertainment, practical stuff, and whatever you’re in to. and Apple keeps expanding this ecosystem gradually, like MobileMe, to make it progressively more useful.

    in theory Microsoft could match this, but their limited MS hardware, varied software, disparate web services, and multiple OEM’s are balkanized all over the map. no average consumer can get it all working together. maybe someday …

    and Nokia is hoping to grow its new Ovi into an equivalent of iTunes on top of a neo-Symbian OS, someday … but it’s starting years behind, and what will it ever have to compare to the iLife suite and how easily it ties in to your mobile/desktop Apple products?

    Google envisions an alternative cloud ecosystem with Android on hardware, Chrome on the desktop, and Google on the web. it might work someday …

    the Pre is a neat gizmo. but that’s all it is, a gizmo. for you gizmo freaks that’s all it needs to be. but to take on the iPhone it needs to be part of a much larger ecosystem, and it’s not. Palm has none. so it’s toast instead.

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    @Alfie: I’m not sure who “you guys” are–if I’m one of them, it’s not the first time someone’s called me dense!–but for the record I agree with almost all of your points. Does that mean we’re both dense, or that I’m less dense than previously suspected?

    (If your goal in life is to minimize the the chances that anyone will be receptive to your thoughts, beginning them by calling your audience stupid is a pretty good strategy!


  4. tom b Says:

    From Gruber: “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.”

    Competition doesn’t drive innovation; creativity drives innovation. Apple succeeds because they make the CORRECT choices; they design and refine until they products are something an intelligent person (in this case, Steve Jobs) would actually want to USE.

  5. AlfieJr Says:

    sorry Harry, i was lumping you and this site with the dozens of bloggers hyping the Pre – or some other whiz bang new smartphone – as a possible iPhone “killer.” it is that absurdly overused word “killer” in a headline that sets me off into disdain. and then there are the constant iPhone vs. whatever posts on big name websites that basically compare selected features and specs to declare a winner, as if that is really all it is all about – gadget/gizmo bells and whistles. as if they were comparing brands of HDTV’s or digital cameras.

    but the iPhone is much more revolutionary – it realized for the first time the cellphone’s intrinsic potential to become an integral component of many aspects of your everyday life beyond voice and text communication. and it’s all those easy Apple ecosystem linkages that make this often work great.

    a few pundits get this right. but the Gruber post you picked up on is the same old tired gadget vs. gadget meme.

    his take away about competition is right tho. of course that is in the consumers’ best interest. not the competition in hardware/gadget features, really, but more important in the convenient services they support and the price you have to pay to get them, and just the overall quality of the “experience.”

    what Gruber gets backward is that the iPhone is actually driving that competition today. the cheap prices it introduced for apps and games have smashed the high-priced model that was universal before. the plethora of free mobile services its apps offer have destroyed the closed-access “monetization” efforts by telco middlemen. app linkage with third party hardware will soon unleash the next wave of innovation/competition, as hardware makers of all kinds look to make their stuff a convenient part of your life too – your car, your smarthouse, everything in your wallet. your digital anything.

    nothing lasts forever. Apple will run out of gas someday and some other company will offer a better product+ecosystem. but not for a few years at least.

  6. Dave Zatz Says:

    Sense UI on the Hero should be a winner, as is the Teflon coated enclosure (white model). But I’m a bit concerned with them using the same processor as older devices. Guess we’ll see what guts it launches with here in the US. If I can wait that long.

  7. tom b Says:

    “nothing lasts forever. Apple will run out of gas someday and some other company will offer a better product+ecosystem. but not for a few years at least. ”

    Tell that to all the people who think we’ll still be using MS Windows in 5 years– there’s a cult for you!

  8. Erik Says:

    I think I’ll just stick with my trusty old flip phone…
    iPhone Killer – the music video:

  9. zato Says:

    Gruber(Daring Fireball) “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.”

    This kind of thinking is nerd thinking. Are people continuing to buy iPhones because it’s “Better”?
    My girlfriend just bought a new one. I asked her if it was a 3Gs, so she could email me a video. She didn’t know. I asked her to look at the box it came in. “Yes, it says 3Gs.” OK, send me a video. 5 min. later the video arrived. Trimmed down to emailable size. By someone who knows nothing, tech-wise.
    It’s not about how much tech you can pack in. It’s not about “exclusive”.

  10. Uh Says:

    Android phones are already better than iPhones. What else does he want?

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