windows 7 phone

Android and the Challenges of Choice

I like my Android phone. It was the first phone on the market to use Android, and might be a bit outdated, but so far it always served my needs—at a fraction of the price of an iPhone. And I'm not the only one; in May, Android's first quarter US sales surpassed that of Apple's platform. However, Testfreaks argues an excess of choice could cripple Android's future potential: a variety of phones with an increasingly fast product cycle is causing "hardware envy". Moreover, all these different devices run several Android versions (from 1.5 to 2.2) which makes it difficult for developers to create apps which fit them all.

As the article points out, given that all manufactures have access to the same Android OS, in order to stand out in a crowded market place, they must tweak it, with either hardware refinements, operating system supplements, or both. This leads to increased competition, even within some companies; can you actually name all of HTC's Android phones?

On top of that, this already confusing competition is made even more complicated by the phone carrier ecosystem it is tied to. Once you buy a phone, you're locked into a contract and have to keep it, at the same time new devices are coming out that you can't have (unless you break the contract).

The smartphone maker, if they do want to update their device lineup, has to work with the carriers to determine who gets which device. The drive for each manufacturer to shine in the market creates a short device turnover period, and this is in contrast to wireless carrier contracts. The end result is that each new Android phone “style”, if you will, needs to be tweaked for each carrier.

The result is even more confusion on the customers' part and a watered down brand. The Nexus One for example was not "the" Google phone but just another Android device. Moreover, developers find it increasingly difficult to develop apps, because each tweaked phone potentially means an incompatibility issue.

Google is aware of this. They ask developers to accurately list their apps' requirements, and then try to make sure that the app won’t be accessible to a device on which it won’t run properly.

That certainly makes things easier; however, as the Testfreaks piece continues, a lot of apps rely on taking advantage of new features to achieve popularity (e.g., a higher screen resolution). Games are a good example, and so far the choice of games for Android phones has been pretty slim.

The iPhone, on the other hand, managed to establish itself as a major player in the mobile game sector. It is, more or less, like a console, offering standardized hardware and software. Of course there were changes, but compared to the multitude of Android devices, they were rather minuscule.

Apple's phone is just one flagship product, which in a lot of countries was only available with one carrier. There is the AppStore and its near-infinite offerings over which Apple rules with an iron fist.

Yet consumers love it.

It is a smartphone that is successful because it breaks with the technicity of a smartphone. It reduces choice to a point where it can't even multitask. I've used the comparison before with the iPad, but the iPhone is the Wii of the smartphone world. Your two-year-old kid can use it, not because she's so smart but because of a break with a technicity that previously made smartphones appeal mainly to competent males.

To stretch the comparison a bit further, the PC used to be a successful game platform, but lost most of its momentum to consoles. Games on PCs are cheaper, they can easily be modified, etc., yet consumers stuck to consoles. Why? Because on the dedicated platforms, the games just work, there's less choice, less hassle, less confusion.

However, the PC also offers a very good counter-argument to the claim that a plethora of hardware can cause problems in the marketplace. Microsoft was able to establish Windows as the market leader despite it being available on a variety of devices with a variety of processors, RAM choices and peripherals.

Steven Johnson quotes New York Times writer Robert Wright:

The more models of Windows computers, competitively priced, the more people would buy Windows computers. And the more Windows computers people bought, the more programmers would write their software for Windows, not Apple. And the more Windows software there was, the more attractive Windows computers would be. And so on.

And even though the changes in variations of the operating system are faster with Android, Google ensures that it works by adding forward compatibility (apps written properly for older versions also run on the newest versions) and asking developers to list their app's requirements.

At the same time you also have to ask yourself what choice Google has. This is a company that, within the constraints of a corporation, is committed to democratic conduct and, as such, fuels innovation. This innovation is furthered by Android's self-competition and a less esoteric app policy.

I believe that this is a model that can work. As a more "classic" tech consumer, I feel at home with Android; I appreciate the choice, the fact that (potentially) there's something on offer for all sorts of consumers, and the chance to use a physical keyboard. I'm also pretty confident that if I bought a premier Android handset today, like the HTC Incredible, I won't really need another device for the next two years.

What do you think? Where is the phone market heading? And what will Microsoft's role be with their new Windows 7 phone platform? (Which handset manufacturers won't be able to personalize to suit themselves or their customers.)