Droid & iPhone: Platform vs. Integration

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Andrew Lees, senior vice-president for Microsoft’s Mobile Communications Business unit to talk about Windows Mobile and the future of smartphones. Lees was passionate in defending the Microsoft approach, where the company supplies the software and general specifications, then leaves it to the handset makers to design and build the phones.

“People want choice,” Lees said, defending Windows Mobile against my assertion that the success of both Apple’s iPhone and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry was due to the fact that they are vertically integrated products, controlled from top to bottom by a single company. “Part of what we bring is the ability to have a stylus, a keyboard, or a touchscreen.”

The introduction of version 2.0 of Google’s Android software on the Motorola/Verizon Droid this week raises the possibility that Lees may be philosophically correct, but he may be riding the wrong horse. The arrival of a much more mature Android means we are going to see a fair fight for the future of smartphones between the models of vertical integration and open platforms.

The advantages of integration are obvious. On handsets more than PCs, the success of a user interface depends on it being tailored to a specific piece of hardware. Every bit of the iPhone version of OS X seems tailored to the specific capabilities of the device--the keyboard and display in particular--which is a big reason why the user experience is so good.

Things are a little rougher in BlackBerry-land, where RIM has to support devices with more diverse capabilities. The touchscreen Storm2 in particular has put a strain on the one-size-fits-all OS; some features designed for keyboard-equipped BlackBerrys don't feel right on the big touchscreen. Still, RIM has also done a very good job of delivering a very good experience.

Windows Mobile until now has been the leading platform choice (Symbian is a contender, but I live in the U.S. with very limited access to Nokia devices, so I going to stick to what I know.) And Windows Mobile is a mess that the newest version, 6.5, does little to clean up. The symbol of WinMo futility is that new touchscreen phones come with a stylus, which immediately takes you back a decade or more. Worse, the stylus isn't just an atavism; with the insensitive resistive touchscreens that WinMo still requires, there are times when you really need it. An interim release that will support more modern capacitive displays is due in a few months, but a major overhaul, Windows Mobile 7, is not expected to show up in handsets until a year from now, by which time no one may care.

Android has a real chance because it started out as a much more modern design and Google has shown the ability to evolve in Internet time. In a little over a year, we have seen two major versions of Android, with two significant point releases (1.5 "Cupcake" and 1.6 "Donut") in between.

Still there are risks in the platform approach. One is that Google has relatively little control over how hardware makers use the open source Android. The biggest risk would be what's known in the software development business as a code fork, which means that we would see different versions of Android that would not all run the same applications. With luck, Google will use its heft and influence to keep this from happening. But even relatively simple variations, like handsets with or without physical keyboards, can lead to software compromises the produce less-than-optimal experiences.

In the end, customers pay their money and make their choices. iPhone-like top-to-bottom will probably always yield the best integrated products. The price you pay is that Apple gets to make all the choices. If you prefer, say, a physical keyboard, you just have to go somewhere else. And in the case of the iPhone, Apple also has control over what apps are approved to run on it, and if you want, say, Google Voice, you'll have to go somewhere else for that too.

Today, with iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android, we have three world-class product families with different approaches to software and hardware development. BlackBerry tends to live mainly in its own email-centric world, but iPhone and Android will be going at it head on. It's going to be interesting.

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