Sunday, May 23, 2010

Android Challenges iPhone, Users Win

As I sat in the audience at Google's I|O conference Thursday morning, I watched Google VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra and others unveilAndroid 2.2 "Froyo," an ambitious upgrade to the company's mobile OS. Gundotra began the keynote by framing Android as a moral crusade against "a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice."

In case anyone couldn't figure out who the man, company, device, and carrier were, he showed a slide that alluded to Apple's most famous commercial. Then, for the rest of the Android 2.2 announcement, Gundotra and others punctuated demos of impressive stuff -- such as dramatic speed boosts and Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities -- with asides about the iPhone and iPad that appeared to be intended to elicit snickers from the audience. Which they did.

apple google iphone androidApple's WWDC conference kicks off in a little over two weeks. Like I|O, it'll be held at San Francisco's Moscone West. Apple hasn't even formally announced that the event will include a keynote, but I'm assuming there's a good chance I'll sit in the same auditorium I was in yesterday, listening to Steve Jobs talk about the next iPhone. Even if he never mentions Google by name, he'll surely aim some little jibes in the direction of Apple's competitors, if only during the inevitable prefatory bit where he updates attendees on iPhone's competitive position. Even if he doesn't, we already know that he thinks Android is out to "kill" the iPhone.

Google and Apple both seem to take the competition between Android and iPhone as an existential, company-defining battle. They're both pouring awesome resources into their work. They're building really good products which, for all their similarities, express strikingly different visions of what a mobile platform should be. And the market appears to be more than big enough for both companies to do well.

It's great -- some of the fiercest, healthiest, most consumer-benefiting rivalry I can think of in the entire history of personal technology. (That history has surprisingly few examples of sustained competition between two giants, in part because one of the giants was so often Microsoft, who -- back in the day -- played hardball more ruthlessly than anyone, and usually against companies who made some truly boneheaded strategic missteps.)

On one side, you've got Apple, which has built the world's most usable, influential mobile operating system,. It's got the biggest and best selection of applications, even though Apple's developer agreement and App Store approval process seriously constrain what developers can do. The company says thatkeeping Flash off the iPhone is a good deed, and is willing to deny users basic features such as multitasking until it nails them. And it sells only one model of phone (unless you want the 2008 version), on one not-exactly-beloved U.S. carrier.

On the other side, there's Android -- a technically solid operating system which appears to have been designed by folks with minimal interest in issues of usability. (At yesterday's keynote, I kept waiting...and waiting...for news of improvements to the Android interface.) It's got a smaller collection of apps, but one that's growing quickly in both quantity and quality, with no micromanaging restrictions on developers. Google is embracing Flash, and adding features to Android that still feel a tad futuristic. (Android's about to get a built-in voice-recognition/text-to-speech autotranslation feature; the chances that Apple is working on anything similar are pretty much zero.) And there are a bevy of Android phones -- ones with varying sizes, specs, and features, on every carrier.

I'm not saying that nobody's allowed to grumble about these two companies and platforms -- hey, I own an iPhone 3GS and a Droid and have aired my share of gripes about both of them. But with both the iPhone and Android in such robust health, everyone who buys a phone gets to decide which vision to buy into. (Or, of course, to buy a BlackBerry, a WebOS phone, a Symbian one, or something else.) And by voting with their dollars, it's consumers -- not Google or Apple -- that will determine what the future of mobile computing and communications looks like.

Here's the future I'm hoping for: one in which both companies duke it out in the marketplace (not the courtroom) for years to come. So bring it on -- snarky comments, self-serving melodrama, and all.

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