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.