Everyone wants a piece of the iPhone

Everyone wants a piece of the iPhone

For a few years every hot new hero phone that hit the market was dubbed "iPhone killer" and lavished with link-bait praise for a week or so, until users hit usability walls, and the link-baiters were on to the next, hot new "iPhone killer".

Nothing killed the iPhone, of course. It couldn't be killed. It wasn't only a smart phone, it was a great phone that was smartly conceived and executed.

Nothing makes that more clear that the fact that it's gone on to sell more in each incarnation than all incarnations before, and it's spread from a single U.S. carrier, AT&T, to become the best selling device on all 3 of the major U.S. carriers, including Verizon and Sprint. (And to be blamed for the misfortunes of the 4th largest, T-Mobile, the only major carrier without an iPhone in their lineup.)

Gimmicks like screens-as-buttons, sliding keyboards, Adobe Flash support, "openy" ecosystems, etc. didn't work. Not for the BlackBerry Storm or the Palm Pre or any individual Nexus or Droids. Competing based on feature lists and spec sheets, in any form, didn't work.

The Pepsi challenge

So now we're on to the "Pepsi challenge" phase of counter-programming. It's a classic bit, where you define the terms of the comparison to get the result you need. Pepsi is sweeter so in small amounts, like taste tests, more people will choose it. You put a sprinter in a marathon, or vice versa, and you pretty much know how it will net out.

Samsung is the obvious place to start. They're absolutely the smartest of Apple's competitors at the moment. They realized there would be a market for people who wanted an iPhone or iPad, but not from Apple, or not running iOS. So they made their products look as close to iPhones and iPads as possible, and made as many of them as possible to fit that segment. Too many, perhaps. (Motorola, who makes decidedly not-iPhones that are also not-iPhone looking, hasn't fared as well in the market.)

The latest Samsung commercial, for the Galaxy Note, puts it head-to-head in challenges against a hapless iPhone user who sadly, doesn't seem to have an app handy for any of that.

The Galaxy Note has a huge screen with a stylus, and comes packaged with software to support just the kind of map-annotating, head-cutting-off tasks requested by the host. (You can download apps and buy a stylus for the iPhone, but the average user probably won't have either immediately available.)

Microsoft's recent "Smoked by Windows Phone" series is similar.

Windows Phone has excellent Facebook integration (and damn fine camera software); iPhone has none. You can get a Facebook app but the iPhone's built-in social sharing options are limited to Twitter (and iMessage if you want to count that).

Both of these campaigns are designed to get potential Apple customers to at least consider getting something other than the iPhone. To try Pepsi instead of buying coke by default. They're not aimed at Apple Store shoppers -- you can't buy and Android or Windows Phone there -- but carrier store and big box store shoppers, who they're hoping will at least consider alternatives before walking out with an iPhone.

And that's an important battle for individual Android device makers, and Windows Phone in general to make. Especially as they increasingly battle each other for unit share.

While Android collectively is the market leader, there are so many Android devices on the market that it's hard for any individual one to stand out, or to stand out for more than a couple weeks. (The top 3 selling smartphones in the U.S. are iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, and iPhone 3GS -- the latter of which is only available on AT&T)

Also, the obsolescence curve for Android devices is brutal, and that's not good for the profitability of each individual phone and the manufacturer who makes it. (Making 10 million of the exact same phone is typically a lot cheaper, per unit, than 10 thousand.)

Samsung is far better when it comes to obsolescence than Motorola has been of late, but their totally undisciplined when it comes to dilution. Instead of releasing only one or two carefully planned, carefully marketed devices, intended to sell in those tens of millions, they're putting out up to a dozen devices, at quarter-inch screen intervals, some like the Note that may not sell more than the tens of thousands.

Who does number 3 work for?

Microsoft's problem is even worse.

Carriers have to carry the iPhone. Dealing with Apple, who won't give them any control, is a huge pain in the ass, but they simply have to do it if they want sales and profitability. Sprint mortgaged the company to get it, customers demand it, Apple still can't make it fast enough. It's a given.

Carriers want to sell Android. Google lets them do almost anything with it, including integrating all their value-added features and services, and while it doesn't make as much money for them as the iPhone, it's nowhere near as expensive either, and satisfies the not-iPhone market almost completely.

Where does Windows Phone fit in? The carriers don't need to sell it because there's nowhere near iPhone level customer demand. They don't want to carry it because Microsoft won't give them anywhere near Google levels of control. So Android remains their preference.

What's the market for the number three cola company?

There's probably a hope inside Microsoft that there will be a large enough segment of not-iPhone customers who either also don't want Android, or try Android, are dissatisfied, and want a not-iPhone not-Android phone. They might also hope carriers want to hedge against Google and, rather than simply fork Android the way Amazon has done -- Verizon vOS DROID KRAZR MAXX! -- they'll come to Windows Phone.

The chances of any of that happening are slim. The Galaxy Note is interesting but ultimately a niche product; like Schrodinger's device, neither tablet nor phone, with no clear market. Windows Phone, especially the Nokia Lumia 800 and 900, are absolutely gorgeous but are caught between the customer-favorite iPhone and carrier-favorite Android with not much space left on the shelf. (Especially given Microsoft's continued, flabbergasting desire to pin their mobile brand to Windows and not just release it as Xphone 720, Halo Edition.)

A piece of the iPhone

We'll probably see more of these commercials for a while, especially when the inevitable Galaxy S III comes to market and Microsoft revs up the Windows 8 machine later this year.

But here's the thing -- none of these marketing ploys, none of these devices will matter unless and until Samsung, Microsoft, and any other would be competitor does what Apple did:

Make a great phone that's smartly conceived and executed.

When we start seeing these commercials, and it's the Lumia 1000 that Samsung is gunning for, or the Nexus Megatron that Microsoft is playing catch-up to, that's when the market will have changed.

Until then, we'll just keep seeing everyone and their phablet desperately trying to get a piece of the iPhone.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Everyone wants a piece of the iPhone


I stopped as soon as the iPhone user couldn't figure out walking maps. It's in an app that comes with the phone! smh

I never started because I didn't care. It'll take something pretty amazing and painfully obvious to sway me.

I find it humorous that they found the most unknowledgeable iPhone user within 12 miles for that commercial. Everything she says she "can't do" she can.
There. Is. ALWAYS. An. App. For. That.
And the stylus thing? Really? USE. YOUR. FINGER!

There are some really good Wacom-style digitizer pens available for the iOS platform these days. The Samsung commercial plays on the ignorance of the population.

I hope Microsoft reads this because I really want my Halo Edition Xphone 720! But for now I'll take the Lumia 900. There could be a market of early iPhone 4 owners who don't want the 4S and can get upgrades but we have no new iPhone to buy (and also don't Android). At least that is where I am right now. Lucky Microsoft/Nokia.

"what Apple did:
Make a great phone that’s smartly conceived and executed."
This grossly understates what Apple did. They didn't just make the phone... they made the world around their phone: iTunes and the Dock connector provided a standard, user-friendly way to connect the phone to what their users wanted to do. iTunes and the original iPods made it possible for so many to purchase music and make it portable in a way that confused fewer people. The Dock connector allowed a market to explode around these devices because it is a standard. And although some might not like how Apple introduces only one new phone a year and sticks with one form factor, that also helps the accessories market.
What really makes the iPhone so successful isn't the iPhone... it's the everything around the iPhone. That's what makes every promising competitor insufficient.

Very well said. Could not agree more. Try going to another device after having an iPhone for a while. Either you carry two devices (phone and iPod) or you're stuck with all these docks, adapters and connectors that are useless. The Apple ecosystem is what makes the iPhone better than the rest.

The article wasn't about what Apple did right. We've written about that in numerous other articles (some linked in that post.)
Just having the iTunes checkout system in so many countries was an almost insurmountable advantage. That's what I meant by execution. They prepared everything -- a 360 degree sphere around the iPhone -- almost to perfection.
But delving into that every time means isn't reasonable. That's why the web invented links :p

Rene, what would your idea of a great Android phone that's smartly conceived and executed be? I think the Global Galaxy Nexus would be that. Great screen, great software, really solid construction (especially for a Samsung phone) and access to the latest updates without having to rely on the carriers. Even the Verizon Galaxy Nexus has all that, although it lost AOSP support due to CDMA issues and it trades off battery but gains faster data speed. If you are hurt by LTE battery life, you can always go back to the good old CDMA network.
Where Google blows it is not pushing harder to support the Nexus and marketing it themselves. You really think Verizon wants this phone to succeed? No way. However, the Nexus does give something back to users in the global version - it gives control back from the carriers. We don't have that in the US due to CDMA. Apple of course increased their sales exponentially when they added CDMA devices to Verizon and Sprint. They also gave up some control due to CDMA. We will never see an unlocked CDMA device...so Apple can't help us from being raked over the coals by the carriers. I'd like to see Apple at least mandate CDMA SIM's. That would be a nice start. If they do have that sort of power, use it so consumers can get SIM only plans for the iPhone on CDMA.

I dont think you understand how CDMA works. It doesn't use sim cards. Ever. The only sims you'll see in Verizon and sprint phones are for lte or global phones. CDMA phones have ESN's registered to the carrier's database and the network talks directly to the phone, not a sim card.

Bring this article with you the next time you guys record the Mobile Nations podcast. It always seems like Daniel and Kevin are always hanging on to that "hope" that WP and BB respectively will eventually make a splash and get re-invigorated into the game. And to get Mr. "900-phones-a-week" Phil comments on this would be classic.

I love Mobile Nations and I'm glad that every Nation has their own "cheerleader". We couldn't ask for better ones than CBK, Phil, Dan, Derek and Rene. But much like Republican vs Democrat, each side can be painfully blind in their support. Kevin as our fearless leader doesn’t bash any one platform but we know if we looked at his blood under a microscope there’d be little BlackBerry symbols in there. Rene as EP of all Mobile Nations podcasts and a general lover of technology genuinely likes Android, webOS and Windows Phone and doesn’t go out of his way to bash BlackBerry. He at least wants to see everyone do well because that means more innovation for all. Derek loves his webOS but has been forced to iOS because, let’s face it, after webOS how could you go to the fugliness that was Android pre-ICS? Phil praises strengths but, man, every time there’s a negative story about Google and they cover it on the podcast Phil just sweeps it aside as FUD and tells everyone to stop worrying so much (which can be true at times, I suppose). In print is where Phil is much better at expressing his concerns about Android. His articles and reviews are fair and usually point out shortcomings (except for his saying that PenTile doesn’t matter; it’s hideous and it DOES matter and it doesn’t belong on a top-tier smartphone like the Motorola DROID RAZR and DROID RAZR MAXX). Dan… well I admit I don’t read WPCentral much even though I owned a Samsung Focus for a month and my wife has had hers for nearly a year and LOVES it. I tried. I really did. I even subscribed to the podcast, but Dan is just the worst of the bunch when it comes to defending his team. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say a bad word about Microsoft. Everything they and Windows Phone do is amazing. Everything else sucks or WP does it better. I’ve never heard a positive word out of him about a competitor unless it’s something glaringly obvious. From experience I have to say it’s a rock-solid operating system. The wife rarely has issues. But man is it boring. One screen of tiles and a Details screen of apps. Android people think iOS is boring? Give them a Windows Phone and tell them to try it for a month like I did. I actually switched to a BB Torch 9810 and LOVED it in comparison to the Focus. But I do love Bing and Bing Rewards. I don't even type addresses in anymore, I type them in Bing to earn my points. :) But in the end, the iOS ecosystem and all of my favorite apps brought me back to iPhone after that 2-month experimental period. :) But like I said, she loves it and it’s perfect for her. She texts and IMs constantly (99% of her usage) and checks her email on it and takes pictures all the time. When she wants to have fun and play games she uses her iPad.

I have one easy frame of reference to tell how well a product is doing.
Count how many different third party products work with a specific phones.
Now throw away all cases and chargers. Count what's left.

In a few weeks, no one will care about these silly commercials. It will be ipad mania which will only further boost iphone sales. What's that? Ecosystem? Yep, that's what it's all about. Oh and a new apple tv?
The rest can do hardware. It's the software integration that only Apple can do because they run the entire platform as well as direct updates & support. We all get the latest iOS version in a few weeks. Not so for the Samsung phablet users who wonder why their apps don't work or look right or why they're still using an ancient version of android.

I love this article so much, I want to make sweet, sweet intercourse with it.
Thank you for a good read Rene. I needed it to brighten up my crap day at work.

I work for an AT&T retailer, and I only wish using the galaxy note was this easy to explain to customers how to use as the commercial makes it seem. And if only the apps that use the s pen weren't buggy and didn't lag.

Another lame commercial giving Apple more press, just like that commercial mocking the Apple zealots waiting in line for the next new product and some dumbass walking by has a Captivate, Motivate, Capitulate, Masturbate......whatever they call their devices.
.Samsung only wishes they have a line at a new product launch. Brilliant marketing, geniuses at Samsung!

I used to like this blog, now I'm getting sick of every editorial being either a diatribe about how great apple is, or that plus how fragmented android is. We get it. Apple good, android fragmented, Microsoft irrelevant, blackberry sad shell of it's former self. Please write about something else, or if you must go on an apple-love-rant, at least add some new relevant info.

We haven't posted any editorials about Android or other phones in a while. We "used to" post a lot more of that stuff.
If anything, this was a love letter to Android and Windows Phone, lamenting the tough market conditions even the best of the best phones are facing these days.

Hate to break it to ya guy but this is an Apple blog. They have their devotees too. You need only remember one detail & you can accept it. A fan is a fan even if the object of their affection is a greedy enterprise like Apple that represents the one %. So much for the whole "we are the counter culture" bit.
By the way... You do know the first three letters of fanatic right?

If this was reddit you would have an upvote sir. The only reason I come to this site is the off chance that they may possibly have a good article about jailbreak apps or a new product or something. This is only true about once a month, which is probably about how often I visit. Sad..

Sliding keyboards are now considered a gimmick? So know any form factor other than the IPhone is considered a gimmick, even when that form factor predates the iPhone? It was the sliding keyboard that helped usher in the iPhone form factor by allowing larger screens on smartphones.

Gimmick - an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, especially one designed to attract attention or increase appeal.
That doesn't sound bad to me. A gimmick isn't inherently stupid but some end up being not as useful as advertised, like SurePress. I took my mom's old DROID 2 when she upgraded to an iPhone 4S and I really enjoy playing with it over wifi at home. I threw CM7 on it, I downloaded some old apps I'd bought back when I had my Nexus One and actually enjoy the sliding keyboard but it's just too thick. I always have to feel my pocket to make sure my iPhone is in there. Some people don't care about a phone's size and that's great. I know you're an Android user but Rene wasn't being malicious, he's actually very fair 99% of the time.

PDAs had the same form factor long before sliding keyboards. Correct me if there was one before but I don't remember seeing sliding keyboards until the mid-2000s with those HTC WinMo bricks. I had a PDA in high school in 2001 that was nearly exactly the same as the original iPhone. Even once those HTC bricks came out the most popular was the BB style; Tmobile Dash and Motorola Q like devices.

just as an fyi - the international galaxy note has sold well over a million, in under 3 months.
"some like the Note that may not sell more than the tens of thousands" I don't think this is a fair statement
and to sell 20 million GS2 in 9 months is also impressive when you're not the iphone and samsung is competing against other android phones at the same time.
just my two cents

Windows 8 will cannibalize sales of Android, but not the iPhone.
I have found that people that want the iPhone are quite adamant about it. And with the iPhone 5 coming this year, that demand will only grow. Not to mention, the iPhone has the highest retention rate in the industry.
Im sure Windows 8 will make a dent in the market, none the less. The retention rate for Android is fairly poor. Therefore, plenty of those users will be looking for alternatives.

Any GSM Android phone would be quad-band.. The only one ATT has would be the Backflip.. T-Mobile has several, but obloiusvy even worse coverage than ATT.. Verizon has not launched any global-capable Android phones yet, but one should be out by the end of the year, otherwise when LTE launches.. Congrats on ditching the iDont btw!!