Relative Sanity

a journal

Sideways platformer

This was an article that I originally published in 2012. I think it’s still relevant, so here’s a slightly updated version.

iOS and Android are fundamentally different things, and the idea that they are competing for the same parts of the market betrays a misunderstanding of that difference.

So what are they, if they're not the same? I once tweeted that iOS is a "computing platform", while Android is a "development platform". I'm not sure those appelations quite nail the meaning I'm after, but let's stick with them for now. I've made my bed, it's up to me now to persuade you to get into it.

Let's start with a look at what iOS provides the user with. If I buy an iPhone as a new customer, I'm presented with an interface to my phone that is likely unlike any other phone I have ever used. Even if I've used an Android phone, the differences are great enough that it's going to feel different. I can't install any apps that I used on my Android phone, for example, and the keyboard is not going to feel the same. I'm also going to have to get used to the idea of a single "home" button, the app store, and so forth.

If I'm a longtime casual owner of cell phones, though, this newness is an entirely normal feeling. Since the cell phone industry's entrance into the mainstream in the late 90s, buyers are accustomed to each new phone they have working differently from their last. That's just how it is. To steal a Gruberism, the idea has traction.

Now, consider when I make my second iPhone purchase a couple of years later. I've probably already had a couple of system software updates which have added new functionality to my phone, while retaining the feel of it: It feels like I got a better iPhone each update, instead of a new, different phone. I buy my new iPhone and, lo, it's exactly the same feeling. It's faster, more responsive, maybe has some new hardware toys, but fundamentally, I feel at home. It's still my phone, and there's a continuity there.

This was the real revolution in the cell phone industry. More than anything else, this is why Apple continues to sell iPhones as fast as they can make them, and it's why they can parlay that success into a tablet device that's more successful at making money than any other device in the market.

So, whither Android? Android is primarily a barrage balloon defence on the part of Google. We know that Google makes its money from advertising, but that revenue stream relies on people continuing to use the web through Google. Google doesn't care if Android wins or not, so long as nobody else in the space gets big enough to be able to threaten Google's access to eyeballs.

Android is thus built not for users, but for Apple's competitors in the mobile space: the handset manufacturers. HTC, Samsung et al have long been used to making money by building phones, selling those phones with a fixed set of features, then building better phones with better features, and selling those phones. The handset market has been dominated by hardware advances for the past decade, and that's how those manufacturers make their money.

Android gives those manufacturers a kit on which to build smart phones that can continue this strategy of providing access to improvements only via hardware purchases. Given the level of version fragmentation across the Android phone generations, and the continuation of the manufacturers aggressive obsolescence of old handsets, it seems fair to say that the experience of buying into the Android platform is far more like the old-world of "new phone, start again".

In other words, from the user's point of view, "iOS" provides a continuous, consistent experience which is novel to the world of cell phones. This is what most users think of when they hear the word "platform", for reasons that I'll discuss in a later article.

Android is not a "platform" in that sense. I buy an Android device from HTC, and another one from Amazon, and as far as I can tell, there's nothing in common between them. Heck, there's precious little in common between last year's HTC offering and next year's.

Yes, there are elements of continuity across the Android OS which all users can access, but increasingly it seems that Android owners are of the same school of user that really just wants to use their phone to make calls. Android has allowed manufacturers to sell those customers "smartphones" with little or no effort.

It's telling that the only other manufacturer in the space that's making money is Samsung. They're also the only ones aggressively striving to brand a continuous, familiar "Galaxy" experience for their customers. When did you last hear Samsung mention "Android" to users?

When users talk about "platforms", they're thinking about a platform upon which they can build their computing experience, and they want to choose a platform that will support them in what they want to do for years to come. The mobile industry has been used to building handsets where the experience for the user is tightly coupled to the hardware in their hand. The mobile industry has never had a concept of "platform" before, beyond the kind of platform only nerds care about.

Apple's (and, increasingly, Samsung's) platform mantra could be summed up by users as "familiar and better". Android's could be summed up by manufacturers as "business as usual".