99cents

When Android first appeared I had an inkling that it would be a hit. I didn’t enjoy the early incarnations of the software – the G1 was like a Sidekick on steroids – but generally I expected Android devices to blanket the world for one simple reason: it was free and carriers no longer had to worry about Java stacks and wonky, homebrew OSes. Instead they could sell phones that worked, approximately, like every other Android phone in the world. It was Google’s gift to an industry that was facing competition from all angles.

And that plan worked. But I always wondered if my “free” hypothesis held water.

Today Sam Biddle at Gizmodo published a great examination of just what makes Android so popular – the phones it comes on are cheap and, as such, are popular with a wide tranche of users. While the iPhone (with its black metal and fancy glass face) costs $299 on a good day and $500 on a day when you’re not out of contract, devices like the Motorola Atrix HD costs 99 cents with contract.

Writes Biddle:

The split between the ever-pricey, ever-coveted, newly chamfered iPhone and everything else is glaring: The iPhone is universally considered good. A lot more Android phones are considered good enough—or, more to the point, good enough for what they cost. And it’s that trait more than any new feature that’s guaranteeing Google its role as Phonemaker of The People, a democratic gadget, while Apple succeeds only in cementing its grandfathered slot in the gilded pockets of the overly-discerning overclass.

In short, when it comes to phone popularity, Google is doing everything right by essentially giving the OS away to all comers. This is essentially “Free As In Beer” software that allows manufacturers to slap a solid, usable OS into a slow, wonky phone and sell it for pennies. The resulting popularity, then, of Android (and Samsung) is driven less by the high end but by the low.

Biddle goes a bit more into detail in his post, but I think it’s important to remember this extremely important distinction between iOS and Android. While Android is winning – and that’s unequivocally true – it is winning by Hoovering up the low end of the market. Barring the beautiful flagship phones that cause even me, an inveterate iPhoneboy, to salivate, Android is scorching the earth by being the cheapest and not the best. Once it gets both of those factors right, however, watch out. RIM and Microsoft will be flattened and Apple, even given all of its die-hard fans, will finally see true competition. As any booze hound will tell you, there’s good whiskey and there’s cheap whiskey and rarely, is there good cheap whiskey. Google needs to hit that sweet spot and then the market will really take off.


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