Jun 10

Android: thinking different

A little clarification before I ramble about Android: I think it’s great that iPhone has serious competition. Android has improved quickly. I know people who love their Droids and we’re still friends. All is good.

But Android and iPhone have different philosophies, and it’s easy to see why. Each entered the market in entirely different circumstances.

Apple made something that didn’t exist before. It was shocking. It sent all the phone companies back to the drawing board. Google entered the phone market as a result of the iPhone revolution. Their challenge wasn’t “How can we build the best phone in the world?” It was “How can we do battle with iPhone?”

Google clearly saw what they were up against: multi-touch interface, beautiful mobile OS and an App Store with a seemingly insurmountable lead. So they acquired Android. They’d acquired Android in 2005. Now they needed to acquire a guiding philosophy. What they chose was a fairly obvious one:

“We’re not iPhone.”

In effect, Android is Google’s “think different.” Don’t want to get stuck with AT&T? We’re everywhere. Apple too strict with app approvals? No approvals here. No Flash on iPhone? We got it. (Almost.) Only one model of iPhone? Androids abound.

Of course, if you’re an Apple fan you can come up with plenty of reasons why Apple’s approach is superior on all counts (well, maybe not the AT&T part). But that’s not the point. This is marketing. This is Google latching onto some negative perceptions and running with them. And it’s working pretty well for them.

One little problem. When “being different” is your guiding philosophy, “being the best” is not. Your decisions can have unintended consequences. Like this one:

Security vendor SMobile Systems just issued a report saying “as many as 20% of applications on the Android Market let third parties access private or sensitive information.” This includes access to content of email and text messages, user location, etc. Google responds that none of this can happen without the user first approving, but then adds: “we will disable any apps that are found to be malicious.”

Well, that’s the problem with being the anti-Apple. You can shun a process for the sake of being different, but the laws of human behavior dictate that malicious apps will inevitably appear. It’s fabulous that Google will disable them after they’re reported — but I doubt that will comfort those who are victimized before Google notices.

If I were Google, I’d worry about what happens when one of those sneaky apps causes widespread damage before it’s plucked out. That’s when people might start to choose iPhone simply because “it’s not Android.”

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  • neilw

    I agree with the general gist of this, but one important correction: Google bought Android in 2005, long before the world knew about the iPhone. The iPhone design greatly influenced the development of Android (obviously), but it’s wrong to say that Google acquired Android to compete with iPhone.

  • Ashu Joshi

    Agree with Neilw’s comment above, Android was acquired in 2005. They were thinking Blackberry style keyboard phones (Andy Rubin founder of Android was also founder of Sidekick). I guess success of iPhone prompted them to go pure touch.

  • ken segall

    @neilw & Ashu Joshi:
    You’re both right, I was mistaken about the timeline and have corrected the post accordingly. Thanks for pointing that out.

    And yes, iPhone obviously influenced Google’s plans, as they likely weren’t thinking touch and they sure as hell weren’t thinking app store. They were working on Android for a year and a half before iPhone and then two years after, with the first Android phone appearing in February 2009.

  • There core difference between apples and googles philosophies is:
    Apple believes in whitelists while Google believes in blacklists.

    Whitelist philosophy stifles innovation and blacklist philosophy is chaotic.

    Pick your poision (or ambrosia)

  • Peter Taylor

    I disagree with the some of the assumptions of your article; namely that you can judge the intentions of the iPhone and the Android to be either the “best phone in the market” or to “battle the iPhone”. Companies are profit-seeking enterprises based on market research. More likely Google saw that a large portion of users of the iPhone–some power users and creative types–and developers would not want to stick to the whims of a single company (especially when this company has contracted their product with only one carrier). Reading into philosophies is believing marketing pitches.

    One of the issues with an open marketplace is that the consumer does have to have some knowledge about what they are installing. Of course we could have a regulating team like Apple to kick out applications arbitrarily before they even hit the market, but this stymies developers from creating on their platform unless it is a “sure bet”. Oddly enough Apple will kick off great apps–such as Google Voice–yet allow hundreds of crappy games which are essentially the same. The problem with relying on a regulating body is that they are biased. Now Google may have a “wait and see” attitude, but at least they are ensuring that the user is sure they want to allow an application the permissions it asks for.

    Apple’s business model has caused an underground market to flourish in the jailbroken market, where developers are not held back by Apple’s biases. Last I checked there were over 20 million downloads of one of the most popular jailbreaks. Obviously there are a lot of people who do not like being held back by Apple’s constrictive OS and/or App store.

    This is why Google will win in the long run, or at the very least Apple will learn a thing or two.

  • LennonVC

    It is good to have options. I hope there are always at least two major platforms out there competing.

    I would really like to see some cooperation with apple by having API’s for they proprietary apps. They have promised to make FaceTime an open standard, I guess time will tell.

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  • Rodya

    I think there are some statements in your article that need clarification:

    “Apple made something that didn’t exist before.”

    Apple did come up with a great product that combined a lot of the top features of the day, and put them together very well. What they did not do was create the first smart phone or even first touch screen smart phone. (see the IBM Simon way back in 1992, or a more contemporary style smart phone, the HTC Wallaby in 2002. The iPhone may have done it much better than it had been done before, but they did not invent the first touchscreen smartphone.

    “Google entered the phone market as a result of the iPhone revolution.”

    See your correction further in the article. Google had already acquired Android 3 years before the iPhone was released, so they did not enter the phone market as a result of the iPhone

    “Their challenge wasn’t “How can we build the best phone in the world?” It was “How can we do battle with iPhone?””

    Really? Were you in their strategy meeting? Did Eric Schmidt send you a special press bulletin delineating their “challenge”. You are blindly assuming here, and most likely, assuming wrong. Why would Google not want to be best? Do you think they said, “Well, let’s just try to be alright, maybe not best, but just come, you know, kinda like the iPhone, but maybe not that good, just enough to take 1 or 2 of their customers”?

    “Now they needed to acquire a guiding philosophy”

    Most multi-billion companies probably have a vision for what they want to do before they acquire another company, not just acquire it, and then try to figure out why they did.

    “We’re not iPhone.”

    Or how about, “We’re not going to overly restrict what people can do with the phones they buy, we’ll let them decide what works best for them”. Or how about, “We are about openness and innovation”, which has been their guiding philosophy behind much of what they’ve done long before the iPhone was on a drawing board.

    “No Flash on iPhone? We got it. (Almost.) … Of course, if you’re an Apple fan you can come up with plenty of reasons why Apple’s approach is superior on all counts”

    First, I doubt Google worked with Adobe solely based on the fact that Apple didn’t. Aside from that, what is better about Apple’s approach? I know, I know… Steve told us all how evil and awful Flash is, and how it will kill our batteries, webpages and even our families, but if you personally don’t like Flash, turn it off. If someone else likes it, they can turn it on. Or do you really need Poppa Jobs to protect you from accidentally enjoying a feature before you realize how much he doesn’t like it.

    “One little problem. When “being different” is your guiding philosophy, “being the best” is not.”

    Again an assumption on your part as to what Google’s philosophy is, and again I would argue, they aren’t as hung up on being as contrary to Apple as they can be. By the way, Google’s preferred OS for its employees’ computers is Mac. They aren’t the anti-Apple, no matter how much the fan-boys of either company act as if they are.

    “Your decisions can have unintended consequences. Like this one: Security vendor SMobile Systems just issued a report saying “as many as 20% of applications on the Android Market let third parties access private or sensitive information.” This includes access to content of email and text messages, user location, etc.”

    Yep. One of those apps is SMS Autoreply. I use it all the time when I’m in meetings, and it does exactly what the name says. Another is Calendar Troll. It reads the descriptions in my Calendar events and if it finds “Silent”, “Vibrate”, or “Normal” in the description, it sets the phone’s ringtone appropriately for the duration of the event. Another is facebook, which integrates seamlessly with my contacts and accesses my personal information to make my experience better. I also play a game called Parallel Kingdom that uses my GPS to find my location and place me in an augmented reality MMORPG which is fun. Then there’s Layar, Shop Savvy, and a host of other apps that are really great, and at the same time, access personal information.

    “Well, that’s the problem with being the anti-Apple. You can shun a process for the sake of being different”

    One last time, Google is not as hung up on being the opposite of Apple as you seem to think they are.

    So, in conclusion, you made an assumption and ran with it, and I think you are very wrong.

  • allan

    Having never owned a smart phone but a tech savy myself, most articles dedicated to promote iPhone are often biased, based on half-truths and basing arguments on unreliable sources(mac fanbois).

    The last comment above will cause the author to re-think his position on the iPhone.

    My point is simply, when there is no competition, there will be no innovation. I am glad that Google created the Android phone so we can have choices, not fanatics on each side, as obvious as the author of this article was.

  • ken segall

    @Peter Taylor & Rodya:
    Thanks for your opinions, even if you don’t agree with me. (And thanks Rodya for setting what I believe is a new record for length of comment in this blog :)

    I’ll stick to my guns about Apple and Google facing different circumstances when they launched their phones. Of course Apple was not the first smart phone, and I never meant to imply that they were. In a post some time ago (http://wp.me/pAZEc-i1), I even offered the opinion that Apple has never technically started a revolution. They simply identify an existing market in need of a revolution and create one. That’s their thing, and they do it very, very well.

    In smart phones, Apple entered a huge but uninspired category. It was a perfect storm: there were tons of dissatisfied customers out there, and Apple had built enormous credibility in handheld devices, having won tens of millions of new customers with iPod. Apple was not focused on bringing down the big guy — BlackBerry — they were focused simply on building a smart phone people could fall in love with.

    Google’s challenge was different. You don’t need inside information to appreciate their mission. Just common sense. The market they were entering had just been thoroughly revolutionized, and the excitement was all iPhone. It wasn’t leading in share-of-market, but it was certainly leading in share-of-mind. If Android didn’t have a different (and more compelling) philosophy, it couldn’t hope to compete. So I don’t doubt that Google wanted to build the world’s best phone. I’m saying that if doing battle with iPhone wasn’t at the top of their priority list, they’d be the most feckless marketers in the business.

    I’m not sure how to address some of your comments, because I’m unaware of your backgrounds — and I don’t want to be condescending. I’m a marketing guy. When I spoke of Google having to “acquire a philosophy,” I was speaking of the marketing, not the technology. Obviously you don’t buy a company without having a plan for its technology. But just as obviously, you don’t just toss your product into the marketplace without first devising a strategy. This is the philosophy I’m talking about acquiring. I believe Google is a terrifically smart company. They’re going up against the master of marketing in Steve Jobs. Surely they thought long and hard about what their strategy would be, and this is where they came out.

    @Rodya, I agree with you about all those things you list in response to my condensing Android’s philosophy into “we’re not iPhone.” All that stuff is true, and those are all the points Google makes in their marketing. I’m not saying that “we’re not iPhone” is an invalid approach. In this post I said “This is Google latching onto some negative perceptions and running with them. And it’s working pretty well for them.” If I were in charge of Google’s advertising, I might end up in exactly the same place. Once you’ve landed on a marketing message, you drive it home every chance you get. It doesn’t matter whether Android’s features were conceived before or after iPhone’s, they had to weave all the elements together into one unified theme. That theme not only guides marketing, it can inform strategic product decisions made along the way, such as the decision not to require approvals in the Android Market.

    @Peter, I honestly don’t think Google will win in the end. But guess what — I’m not sure Apple will win in the end either. No matter who is leading at any one time, the loyal opposition will always have a following. Customers attach themselves to the brand most consistent with their beliefs, as they should.

    As Steve Jobs recently said at D8, all Apple can do is make the best products it can, and people will buy them if they like them. Not a real revelation, as the same is true for Google and everyone else. However, it’s hard to say Apple is misreading the market if they’re selling zillions of iPads and iPhones — with app approval required and no Flash allowed. No doubt there are a lot of Android fans out there, as well as a good number of people who feel stifled by Apple, resent the cult of Apple or hate AT&T. If the current numbers change dramatically, both sides will make the necessary adjustments. We’ll see…

  • ken segall

    Fanatic? Fanboi? Moi?

    If you’ve never even owned a smart phone this far into the smart phone revolution, I love that you’re so willing to dismiss others’ opinions as half-truths based on unreliable sources. (None of which you specify.)

    So you’re “glad Google created Android so we have choices.” Just wondering why you credit Google with providing choice but fail to see Apple doing the same.

    Never mind that Macs have been the alternative choice to PCs for over 20 years. You do realize that Apple entered a crowded market for music players and provided a choice called “iPod.” And that they entered a well-developed market for smart phones to provide a choice called “iPhone” (well before any Android product existed). And that they entered a growing market for netbooks/tablets and provided a choice called “iPad.”

    Or does it only count as a choice when it’s a choice against Apple?

    But maybe that’s just the fanatic in me talking…

  • k

    Two words for the “Flash will kill our batteries” people. Extended battery. Seidio makes extended batteries at 3500mAh for most HTC Android phones. That’s nearly 3x stock battery life. I recharge my phone every night, so I need maybe 15 hours on a full charge.

  • Michael

    ummm… do you have ANY idea how many incredible products were developed specifically to overcome the pathetic limitations of a hegemonic market leader?

  • Daniel

    I think there is a lot of evidence that at least from a marketing standpoint Droid has been focused on doing what Apple does not. I remember the “droid does” campaign. “iDon’t have a real keyboard”, “iDon’t allow open development”. Sounds like they were really trying to differentiate themselves from the iPhone.

  • anthony

    I’ve used an iphone 3gs and android g1 extensively. Both have plusses and minuses. The differences between platforms are not as great and “life changing” as keen marketing types would have you believe.

    Know what you need, do your research and try a few devices against those needs, pick what you prefer. Ignore the hype.


  • Yeah, Android is so open it’s aiming for anarchy.

    None of the current Android features are demoed by Google before the iPhone was released.

    The problem is the previous Droid commercial is a failure:
    google “droid kludge” for explanation

  • Rodya

    @ken segall – In reading your reply, I now see your argument a lot more clearly. Whether due to misreading or assumptions based on coming from a different background than you, I thought you were implying the “We’re the anti-Apple” philosophy was the motto of Google’s engineers. When re-reading your article from the perspective that you are referring to marketing, I get where you are coming from. Whether this marketing is driven straight from Google, or influenced by Verizon, Motorola, and other partners, I’m not sure, but it does seem the marketing is much more geared toward being “Anti-Apple” than the engineers behind the scenes probably ever cared to be. Thanks for the reply and clarification, and I won’t ramble on too long this time.

  • ken segall

    I’m getting misty-eyed here. I’m not sure I’ve ever had an exchange like ours that actually ended in agreement. But I’m glad it turned out this way. I concur, the engineers would devote themselves to making a great phone and leave the marketing to others. While I’m here, you make one great point I forgot to make. That is, we can pin a marketing philosophy on Google, but the Android camp includes a whole gang of phone-makers, each with its own marketing plan. Most seem to build upon the general direction of Google, but they are not obligated to do so — any more than Dell and HP are obligated to sell their computers as Microsoft positions Windows.

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