Is Android Surging Only Because Apple Is Letting It?

This weekend, I’ve been catching up on some reading. One post that was of particular interest to me was David Beach’s article from last week about developing for Android. Beach, who is a product manager at eBay Mobile and a co-founder of 12seconds, basically says that the experience sucks for a number of reasons (all of which Google can fix, but will take quite a bit of work and time). But one quote in particular stuck out to me:

Android has succeeded despite Google. In fact it’s safe to say that Android is successful for one primary reason. The iPhone is only available on AT&T. If the iPhone was on Verizon a year ago. Android would be no where near as popular.

Obviously, Beach isn’t the first person to bring this idea up. But he brings it up in a way that he’s able to back-up his feelings from a developers’ perspective, while at the same time roping in what isn’t ideal from a consumer perspective about Android as well.

This is going to sound like flame bait, and everyone knows that I love the iPhone — but I have to agree with Beach. I’ve used no less than six Android phones for extended periods of time over the past couple of years. I really am trying to like them. But I just can’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, almost all Android phones are a million times better than the phones we had just a few years ago before the iPhone burst onto the scene. And if the iPhone didn’t exist, there is no question that I would use an Android phone and would probably be very happy with it. But the iPhone does exist. And I simply can’t bring myself to use an Android phone when I know a superior device is out there. That’s my only requirement for me to use a product: it has to be the best.

The only valid argument I can see for the iPhone not being the best is the AT&T requirement. So let’s put that aside for a second.

While I obviously understand that people have different tastes, I can’t see how you can objectively say that the overall experience of using an Android phone isn’t worse than using an iPhone. There are a dozen or more elements that are better about the iPhone. Everything from the big: the App Store versus the Android Market (from the consumer perspective) — to the little: the multi-touch and overall touchscreen responsiveness.

Even the most diehard Android loyalists I know (like Jason and Mike) will readily admit that the iPhone offers a better user experience. So why do they love Android (again, besides the lack of AT&T requirement)? The openness. They hate that you can’t get Google Voice on the iPhone (I hate it too). And in general they hate Apple’s restrictive policies for the App Store (which I don’t like either). But those are problems that most regular consumers don’t think about — or realize exist at all.

Instead, like Beach says, the thing some consumers don’t like about the iPhone is that it’s AT&T only (in the U.S., obviously). Even if you live in an area where AT&T doesn’t absolutely suck, having no choice of carriers is a big restriction. People have work plans, family plans, etc, etc, that they just can’t switch. Or they don’t want to.

If the iPhone was on Verizon (which is a larger network, remember), is there any question that it would be selling at least double the amount of units it is right now in the U.S.? I don’t think so. What if it was available on all the networks? And what would happen to Android sales if that was the case? That is the big question here.

Next year, it’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll get at least a partial answer. If the iPhone is available on Verizon or even just T-Mobile, will the pace of Android sales slow down in the U.S.?

I know a number of people who are Android users simply because of the iPhone/AT&T restriction. If and when the devices comes to Verizon, they will jump ship. The big question is: will millions of others follow? Or, perhaps more importantly, will millions of new users that would have gone with Android now go with iPhone?

I’m seriously curious to know why you like Android over the iPhone if you do. Is it because of the openness ideal? Is it the variety of devices? Is it the variety of carrier choices? Or is it something else?

The Market is a mess, the media situation is arguably worse, and the user experience is still just off when compared to the iPhone. Google is working on improving all of those things, but Apple is rock solid in all of those areas right now. Both sides will keep improving, but Google’s problem is that Apple is ahead and has remained ahead. Can Google surpass them? I’m just not sure I can see how unless Apple regresses — which they’ve shown no signs of doing. What I can see is a Verizon iPhone. And so do plenty of others.

Apple and Google are in the midst of a PR war for who is activating more devices each day. Google is doing 200,000 a day. Apple is doing 230,000 a day. But Apple says Google’s numbers may include upgrades. Google says Apple is wrong. This will go on and on.

It’s great that there is competition in the market right now. But would it be as fierce in the U.S. if it weren’t for the AT&T situation? Would most people just be using an iPhone? Beach states it as a fact, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question to consider. And it’s something I’m sure Google is considering as the Verizon iPhone approaches.

[photo: flickr/laihiu]