Monday, September 6, 2010

March of the Androids: Has Apple's Content Appeal Peaked?

The big news in content coming off of this U.S. holiday weekend should be Apple's big media event last week. We should be buzzing about how cool Apple's new Ping social media service for music sharing is going to be, how awesome and game-changing Apple TV is and how innovative the new iPod is for a compact touch-screen device.

Well, credit Steve Jobs for trying hard, but it appears as if the bloom on Apple's mobile media rose is beginning to wilt a bit. Mind you, having a runaway hit like the iPad on your hands is hardly what anyone can call a problem, and Apple's iPhones still represent about half of all smart phones in use today. But what's that little green guy that we're seeing more of these days doing to ruin the Apple's buzz?

Yes, you've heard it here before, but clearly events in the past few weeks have been tipping momentum in mobile markets strongly towards devices using Google's Android operating system for mobile devices. The big story comes from market share statistics, some of which are showing Android stealing all of today's mobile phone momentum. While Apple claims to be selling more iPhone units per day than Google partners are selling of Android-equipped mobile units, recent research from Gartner begs to differ, declaring Android phones the global market sales leader.

In the meantime, market metrics company Quantcast indicates one of the main reasons by Android is succeeding, According to Quantcast, Android mobile units now account for 25 percent of mobile Web content consumption, up from a small fraction of that a year ago, while iPhones are coming close to slipping down to owning less than half of mobile Web content consumption. When it comes to the mobile Web, the key driver of mobile data usage, Quantcast data shows that Android units are the only ones showing growth among major smartphone brands.

One could rationalize this all away and say, "It's all about the apps." Well, certainly apps software on mobile devices is popular, but there's nothing about mobile devices that's changing people's fundamental hunger for Web-based content, be it delivered via a browser interface or an app interface. It's where people find their friends, most of their content and most of their business associates, with apps being functional containers that adapt Web content to specific functions.

Moreover, there are dozens of healthy, vibrant technology companies around the world that can make lots of money selling great devices that leverage Web content very effectively - while not pretending that huge portions of it don't exist. Adobe's Flash technology may be a transitional tool in the long run, but if you're looking to make money here and now on the Web, Flash technologies are essential for video, ads and a wide range of corporate Web sites trying to provide rich media experiences to clients and prospects.

If insanity is trying the same thing again and again and expecting different results, it's probably no surprise that even the usually fawning tech media is beginning to question whether Steve Jobs' marketing mojo may be reaching its limits and repeating old mistakes. Apple's "our-way-or-the-highway" approach to content and technology integration works well enough when you've succeeded in hypnotizing the masses with the wonder of your products, but it appears that more and more people are waking up and wondering what they've bought into by accepting Apple as the only new hotness in town.

There are, after all, really nifty mobile devices being churned out now by Motorola, Samsung and HTC powered up with Android that are, at minimum, at complete feature and performance parity with Apple mobile phones - and, given their ability to support many Web-based sources of information and entertainment that Apple devices won't touch, much hotter overall. New tablet devices based on Android from Samsung and LG appear promising also, with Samsung's new Galaxy tablet going feature-for-feature with Apple's iPad and one-upping it in areas like automatic upscaling of Android apps to full-screen viewing.

If we were talking only mobile phones, perhaps you could say that it's only a partial trend towards trouble for Apple. Yet when the previewed Apple TV is compared against the options from Android-equipped television interfaces launching later this month, the breadth of the problems for Apple become more apparent. As with most Apple products, simplicity is the palm-sized Apple TV's most appealing strength. But what one gets in simplicity leaves the unit being little more than an under-featured, underpowered version of existing settop box offerings from competitors such as TiVo and other DVR manufacturers. It doesn't store video, it only streams it - a cable and satellite disaggregator, to be sure, but not a very convenient one.

More importantly, Apple TV offers no Web interface, so there are no options for watching videos from YouTube or popular television network-supported online video outlets such as Hulu. In contrast, upcoming Google TV-equipped devices will be able to allow its users to search through online cable and satellite offerings as well as a complete menu of Web-based TV and personal video libraries from one user-friendly interface. Add in remote control and syncing capabilities from Android-equipped mobile phones and tablets and from Chrome browsers on PCs, and you had best get ready for seeing a lot of the little green guy from Google in your living rooms.

Apple's Ping social networking option for iTunes shows some promise as a way for Apple to gain a foothold in the burgeoning world of social media, but Ping seems to be having a hard time so far. Apparently its design has turned out to be a field day for spammers setting up accounts on the new service. Ping is focused primarily on enabling people to share links to songs and playlists of popular songs, which will certainly bolster iTunes sales, but is a highly limited step towards a service that can enable people to communicate with one another on a wide array of topics - you know, the ones that billions of people share on the Web already. It's a start, but so far, one that is far too limited towards complementing existing media sources.

Apple continues to turn out beautifully designed equipment that's easy to use, but consumers and professionals are not blind. Apple's limited approach to content and technology partners and its obsession with controlling technology to the point of excluding many innovative partners and sensible Web standards is likely to limit its appeal to audiences looking for the best content and the best tools with which to experience it. Love it or hate it, the Web is here to stay and is growing faster as the result of new sources of rich media that benefit from competent integration with Web experiences.

People will have patience for Apple's approach as long as they're happy with limited choice. Somehow that patience seems to be drawing to a close. When more than eight million people bother to view a video trashing a mindless consumer wanting an iPhone no matter what the advantages of an Android-based competitor (warning - crude language), you know that the emperor in black turtlenecks and faded jeans had best check his wardrobe pretty soon. I hope you had a great summer, but don't worry - things are just starting to heat up.
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