Technologizer

The Smartphone Wars are the Early PC Wars All Over Again. Good!

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For this week’s Technologizer column over at TIME.com, I wrote about the smartphone wars–and by the smartphone wars, I mean the battle between the iPhone and Android. It’s not that simple, of course: RIM still sells scads of BlackBerries, Windows Phone 7 handsets are arriving shortly, and HP will release new WebOS phones at some point. And internationally, Symbian phones still outsell everything else. It all reminds me of the early days of personal computers, when the market could support the Apple II, TRS-80, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, Osborne 1, and a bunch of other machines which aren’t leaping to mind right now.

Of course, it’s the sparring between Apple and Google and its partners that’s generating most of the news, innovation, and controversy at the moment. Lots of folks instinctively want to declare a winner between the two platforms–and most of the ones who do seem to think that Android will prevail, in much the same way that the IBM PC trounced nearly everything else by the mid-1980s. It’s not a nutty analysis of the situation given that more Android phones are being sold than iPhones in the US. (That’s exactly what  you’d expect given that more than twenty Android models are available across all four major carriers, vs. the two available iPhone models available from one carrier.)

I’m not so sure that the pundits who are already predicting an Android victory over the iPhone have their analysis right. This battle is quite different from any that have preceded it, including the one between Windows PC and Macs.

For one thing, the Android phones which are most competitive with the iPhone typically don’t have a price advantage over it–there’s no “Apple tax” involved in choosing an iPhone over an Android. For another, Android phones don’t offer the the 100% compatibility with each other than led to the Windows ecosystem dwarfing the the Mac one. (It’s the iPhone that offers the most hardware, software, and service goodies.)

Long-term, I also think the primary purpose of smartphones will be to access an Internet that’s built on open standards, which tends to decrease the likelihood of any one platform coming to dominate the market. In the old days, the wealth of Windows software sold Windows PCs and hurt Mac sales–but you can use the Net whether you’ve got an iPhone or a Droid or a Pre or some phone based on an OS that hasn’t been invented yet.

If the iPhone and Android turn out to be the only platforms that matter over the next few years, I’ll be sad. If only one of those two platforms matters, I’ll be really unhappy. But I think there’s a good chance that we’ll live in a multi-platform mobile world for the foreseeable future. The dynamics of today’s market just make it easier for a thousand flowers to bloom, as they did in the earliest days of the PC business.

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