This week I was attending Microsoft’s TechEd conference and was covering Apple’s WWDC remotely for a number of services. Strangely enough, both Microsoft and Apple seemed more focused on Google as a competitor than they were on each other. In fact, they seemed closer to embracing each other than I have seen them in a decade with Apple supporting Bing and Microsoft indicating that much of what they were showcasing would run on coming iPhone applications. There’s a big battle ahead in the smartphone space and the artillery is put into place. Here is how the rivals stack up.
iPhone: It’s nice, but AT&T brings it down
The iPhone’s strengths include the design of the phone which is the first one, to my eye, that is better that the original. I found the generation 2 and 3 iPhone to be relatively unattractive, but generation 4 is a damned good looking phone. It remains one of the easiest to use phones in the market, has more interesting applications than anyone else and a strong accessory line that goes with it. Apple is unmatched in marketing and demand generation for their phones and MP3 players.
But the iPhone is not without weaknesses. Apple has a very limited
product line and one size rarely fits all. And then there is what has been considered a possible new killer feature of the iPhone, the video conferencing application FaceTime. However, it requires both parties to have generation 4 phones and both need to be on Wi-Fi to work. So, it’s a non-starter. Apple is increasingly seen as too controlling which is upsetting users and developers. Apple’s biggest weakness is AT&T, which seems to go out of its way to make things painful for iPhone users and already has one of the poorest customer satisfaction scores in the nation.
Windows Phone 7: Choice that is late to the party
Windows 7 phones work great in tandem with other Microsoft products like Windows, Communications Server, Exchange and SharePoint. A reasonably large number of hardware partners are providing choice. There is a variety of carriers that will sell the phone, we are seeing vastly improved ease of use, and the development of a standard hardware specification that cuts across vendors.
Weaknesses include the fact you can’t actually buy it yet, a tiny application store (but Microsoft has announced changes that resemble the Apple model), few accessories and many may not work across phones, there is no stand out phone yet, and, let’s be honest, it is very, very late to market. And we know that neither Microsoft nor its partners have historically done well with marketing the predecessors to this platform.
Android: Everywhere, but not for everyone?
It’s strengths are based on a strong connection to Google search and related services, an application store second only to Apple, multi-vendor/multi-carrier support, as well as 4G in the market. Android has had several phones that have risen to challenge the iPhone with the Evo being the latest. And let’s not forget Google’s good relation with developers.
But Android’s weakness is an increasing fragmentation of versions launching at the same time, a history of poorly protecting personal information, dabbling in Google branded hardware which frightened some partners. Google still has to learn to market their offering effectively. In addition, Google is getting a reputation for launching products that aren’t yet ready for public consumption.
Winning: Too early to call
Apple is the company to catch, but unless Apple can mitigate the pain AT&T is causing, they will likely be passed by one of the others. In fact you could likely argue that, with the Evo, Google has already passed Apple. In mindshare, there is no one that can touch Apple yet. Google has to up the quality of the Android and get more compelling products to Verizon and T-Mobile, both of which are preferred to AT&T, and improve the selection in Android Market. Microsoft needs to actually enter the market and find a way to emphasize their superior interoperability into a competitive advantage. Microsoft has the farthest to go, but the market for smartphones is still opening up that gives them some additional time to get there.
Wrapping Up: A two horse race that will get two more soon
I have serious problems with communications devices that won’t interoperate well. The idea of a video conferencing application that will only work if an extreme number of conditions exist reminds me of Zune’s music sharing feature (which only worked with other Zune players and sucked as a result). And why is it that you can’t tether an iPad and an iPhone? Apple needs to improve the interoperability with those products. Quality and trust that is important as well and here Google falls a bit short. It’s a two horse race right now, as you can’t buy Microsoft’s WP7 phones yet.
But each vendor could learn some good practices from the others. Apple could be more open and interoperable particularly with themselves, and do what it takes to get another carrier. Google could work harder to create a more consistent and reliable platform and stop messing around with our personal information. Microsoft could actually get something complete to market timely. Whoever does the most of this will likely win this market.
And hey, there is another contender: HP (with Palm) may actually get to the goal first.