Brand Power and Smart Phones

With the flurry of recent news about Apple’s new iPhone and iOS4, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the masterful play that Apple has made in this arena.

The bulk of their success is not due to their hardware (there is more powerful hardware available) or their software (there is more capable software available) or their app store (there are less-regulated, more accessible app stores available) but rather to their ability to engender a sense of loyalty in consumers through a strong brand identity.

Especially in contrast to their largest competitor, Google’s Android OS, Apple is far and away the industry leader in brand cultivation. Palm recently announced that they were up for sale, pretty much giving up the ghost on the smart phone game, despite their well-received WebOS and new phones. A new Windows Mobile 7 is coming out soon – but for the most part, the battle is down to two: Apple and Android.

How does Apple make such a strong brand play? Let’s take a closer look.

Hardware

  • Apple: Apple’s hardware is very tightly controlled, as we saw when somebody managed to lose a prototype of the new phone. Moreover, Apple has recently begun manufacturing their own chips through a subsidiary company that they acquired. This tightly coordinated process let’s Apple direct the product from beginning to end, allowing them a great measure of product control.
  • Android: Android is an operating system based on Linux that can be made to run on many different types of hardware. True, most commonly Android is found on phones, but it is also going to be available soon on tablet PCstelevisions, and even cars. This wide availability of hardware has both pluses and minuses. On one hand, technology that is developed for a function on one piece of hardware can easily be ported over to another. On the other hand, simultaneous development has fragmented the identity of the product.

Software

  • Apple: Apple is notorious for the high level of control they use in both software development and in approving third-party applications for their App Store. Their software is often lacking features found in other smart phone operating systems, but excels at user experience, speed, stability, and ease of use.
  • Android: Android’s software is both open-source and incredibly powerful. This means that there are many companies, organizations, and individuals who are all simultaneously working to develop their own take on this suite of software. This forked development has led to significant fragmentation in the marketplace – some Android phones are running older versions, and are incapable of accessing some of the most sought-after tools and toys. As this pattern continues, the fragmentation, delay, and lack of integration threaten to put Android in a very tough spot from the point of view of a commercial developer or phone company.

Purchasing Process

  • Apple: Apple’s retail stores are incredibly popular, incredibly effective, and have been copied by rivals unsuccessfully. They have also partnered with select retailers to make their iPhones available in other locations (such as AT&T stores, Radio Shack, and Best Buy, to name a few). Still, in comparison with Android devices, the purchasing process is highly regulated, requiring activation at the point of purchase.
  • Android: Since the software is offered online for free, the purchasing process either takes place when you buy a phone that comes with Android pre-installed or install it on a device yourself. As far as I know, now every major US cellular provider offers at least one Android phone, with most carriers (including AT&T) offering several choices and price-points.

Update Process

  • Apple: Apple’s iTunes software can not only manage the updates of your music and movie collection, but also serve as a platform to update your iPhone. It couldn’t be easier, often done with a few clicks.
  • Android: Android can be downloaded for free from the Internet. If your phone comes with the Android OS already installed, you can often update it yourself right on the phone, or visit one of the many developer forums to unlock even more potential from your device. However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, or don’t know anything about Linux, you may find the updating process cumbersome and could potentially render your device unusable – proceed at your own risk!

Conclusion

Apple and Android seem to be taking the opposite approaches to the smart phone game. Apple controls every aspect, start to finish, and only moves when it feels ready to. Android controls very little of the process, instead offering anyone to help, put it on whatever hardware they wish, and change it as they see fit. So far, it seems like Apple has a decided lead. Take a look at this graph showing Mobile Web usage in the US:

Clearly Apple is dominating, but look at Android’s recent rise. In fact, numbers reported last month indicate that Android sales are, in fact, outpacing the iPhone. Is Android’s laissez faire strategy starting to pay off? Or will Apple’s strong brand loyalty keep them the mobile king?

Only time will tell.

Shay Colson

A 2010 iSchool graduate, Shay Colson lives and works in Seattle, Washington. He uses technology to solve problems for government, organizations, and also real, actual people. You can find him on Twitter @shaycolson.

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