By Jaime Rivera | May 15, 2012 8:00 AM
As a geek, it’s sometimes hard for me or many of us to leave the tech bubble that we’re surrounded with in order to understand why the average consumer sees things differently. Our own passion for gadgets pushes us to swap phones constantly, where as the average user signs a contract for one phone they won’t be able to change for the next two years. With such a huge commitment, it’s still an illogical mystery to many how Apple was able to push their iPhone from complete in-existence to being the top selling smartphone in the world. I say illogical because it was significantly more expensive than its competitors when launched, and it was only one phone to compete with hundreds of devices that already did what it lacked, back when hardware keyboards and 3G were the trend.
Five years later, competitors issue press statements when one of their product lines is able to sell 10 million units in a year, when Apple is selling 35 million units in just one quarter alone. So if hardware hasn’t been the key selling point, how does Apple keep winning? As we’ve dug deep into sharing why we believe that people love Android and Windows Phone, it’s time to give iOS some credit, because it’s really the software that’s made the iPhone a smartphone for the rest of us. Why?
Because it was designed to be a “Smart” phone OS
Products don’t just sell well from one day to the next. It’s important to briefly look back at its history to understand its current success. Many of you may not remember this, but back in 2007, Smartphones were “Capable” PDAs that were evolved into phones. Windows Mobile, Palm OS and even RIM’s BlackBerry OS were all platforms that were not initially intended to operate as phones. Nokia’s Symbian was designed to power feature phones and was later evolved to deal with PDA-like functions. For companies like Microsoft, keeping their core-business customers happy by patching and evolving a legacy OS was important, but the result was like trying to patch a sedan with all the tools needed for SUV performance. And don’t get me wrong, I loved that sedan back when Windows Mobile 2003 ruled the world, but that pseudo-SUV running Windows Mobile 5.0 was a different story.
Apple’s approach was different. They had no baggage to carry, and they focused on using only the primary functions of their legacy OS X to power iOS in things like Wireless Networking, basic code and others. OS X didn’t even scratch the surface of Windows back then, so it made no sense to make the UI look like anything their own computers looked like. The idea was to become the anti-smartphone, if we left that name to what smartphones were back then. A true Internet communicator that behaved like a smarter phone when you needed it, and like a wide-screen iPod when you needed it. Today, all platforms have reached that same ideal, but it’s hard to believe that five years later, iOS still does little things like email better than everybody else.
The principle that drove people to pay an insane $500 plus a two-year contract for a truly underpowered first-gen iPhone was something that ironically nobody had ever thought of, and it was to give it a natural user interface. Geeks like you and me prefer digitally authentic experiences instead of skeuomorphs because we loved Tron and Star Wars, but Apple was after the average consumer, and making the world adopt a smartphone required a device they could relate to. They designed the whole experience to look like something you deal with every day; for example, in cases like the notes app which looks like a real note pad. And while I’d never consider calling this a feature, the average consumers did.
I’m still amazed at how many Senior Citizens I find at airports using an iPad. My two-year-old son already understands how to flip between screens, launch his favorite drawing app and what the only button on the device is for. The reason why many of us took so long to even consider an iPhone as a smartphone, was precisely because we were never its targeted market.
Because it has everything that matters to everyone else
The smartphone market of today reminds me of automobile industry back in the 70s. Everybody was competing for the strongest engine, the biggest interior and flashiest coat of paint. Fuel sadly isn’t unlimited and vehicles were forced to adopt more efficient designs, materials and features. Power is now determined by efficient technology and not just engine performance.
In a similar way, iOS is not for what us power users valued yesterday. Along with Windows Phone, the platform has shined in making the smallest engine look good. Today’s average user doesn’t want to pull the battery out when the device hangs, or enjoys the “crash” message they get no matter how well the OS apologizes for it. They just wants the damn thing to work! People don’t care about a processor, RAM or even NFC as much as they desire fluidity. They care about solutions that’ll allow them to do more for their money. That discovery alone has led the term smartphone to evolve just as much as the term “power user” just five years later. Today it’s no longer about how capable an OS “can be”, but about how powerful a user will feel once they’ve loaded the device with just the right apps to fit their needs.
Just like Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, apps were definitely not invented with iOS. What Apple did right though, was provide an on-device store that revolutionized the market, and they aggressively priced each app in order to make the total cost of ownership a no-brainer. Today that may be irrelevant to you, but back when you and I were willing to pay $30 for SPB Pocket Plus, Apple built all that functionality into the OS for free and sold you Angry Birds for a dollar.
Today, the driving force behind any platform lies in its apps. Those that struggle to sell just as many apps as iOS, mock it for how closed Apple has made the process of submitting an app to their store. In my case, I prefer for Apple to do their job in making me happy with good quality apps, than to make certain developers happy by tolerating mediocrity.
Because what it does, it does right
The iPhone doesn’t differ in many ways to what other smartphones offer when it comes to specs, but Apple does strive to make their offering the best. Take the camera for example. Ever since Apple’s launch of the iPhone 4, competitors are still trying to beat it in photo quality. While competitors are still working on bringing more megapixels, filters, or in optimizing the time it takes to launch the camera app, a dedicated camera button, or even sharing features, Apple focuses on optics. This feature alone enables all the rest to make sense, but still today, it seems that only Apple takes it to an acceptable level.
As stupid as it may seem, the camera was what drove me to buy an iPhone 4 two years ago. Surely photos were stunning, but to this day, I still find it ironic that it shot better 720p video than the 1080p $600 Canon camcorder that I owned back then. In a tough economy, that level of convenience where your phone is able to replace your need to buy extra hardware is just another reason people love their iPhone.
Heck, even Jailbreaking is done right. With other platforms, you have to worry about bricking your device if you don’t follow the precise instructions. With iOS, all you have to do is send the device to DFU mode if something went wrong, connect to iTunes, and your device is back to life.
Because it’s not just an OS, nor a phone, but an ecosystem
I find it funny that owning a Samsung smartphone makes owning a Samsung tablet no different. Each product was designed to be different, and in that same way, to be no different to the rest of the devices you use around it. With Samsung or Motorola products, not even the charger can be shared between most phones and tablets. Surely the apps on one Android phone will work on another, but that holds true no matter what brand your tablet is when compared to your smartphone. On the other hand, other platforms like BlackBerry OS cripple their tablet in order to force you to buy one of their phones, even if you don’t want to.
People love iOS because Apple’s mentality towards their product line-up is different. Products were also designed to be different, but most peripherals are shared and the software that powers them keeps evolving in order to allow each device to play well with another. I love walking into my house and have the music player on my iPhone automatically detect that there’s an Apple TV on the network without my intervention. I also find it awesome that the movie library on any Mac or Windows PC can be streamed to my device with ease, as if it was locally stored on the device and not remotely. An Apple TV is a product on its own and you don’t need an iPhone or iPad to make great use of it, but it’s so great to know that if you do, there’s added functionality to take advantage of.
Features like Siri may still be a novelty for many, but there’s no denying that the added functionality is a welcomed service that is way beyond competition. iCloud is another service that, while sometimes underestimated, is great for what matters most to many. The idea of taking a photo and having it sync everywhere automatically, or buying a song and having it pushed everywhere is simply the way things should be if you think of it.
Because Apple knows its product is not perfect
Apple’s evolution of iOS has been dramatic. They weren’t the first to the market with lots of its current features, but people that invested on the first generation iPhone weren’t left out of the party before their contract ended. It’s so disappointing to invest on a phone today that’ll look terrible when compared to the model that’ll launch two month’s later. Apple’s approach to hardware, while bashed by many, is precisely what keeps people buying devices. Nobody likes to be seen with aged technology, and Apple’s minor changes every three years keep people trusting their iPhones will look just as great today as they did when their contract started.
When it comes to iOS, Apple’s 3-year old iPhone 3GS is still supported with software updates. If you ask that same question to anybody that owns a 3-year old Nexus One, the story changes. And if you approach any current Windows Phone user, you’ll hear the same story by the fall of this year. OEMs and software providers have really become insensitive to their customers in favor of more phones sales and software licenses to be sold in times when not everybody can afford to switch phones at that same pace. People have come to trust Apple because they support their devices until the hardware simply can’t. Everybody knows that iOS will keep evolving, and it’s great to know that they will all be part of that evolution well through their contract.
The bottom line
Phones shouldn’t only say they’re powerful in what’s printed in the box, but also smart enough to deliver. iOS has excelled in making what nobody thought of before, into something so basic that there’s really no reason why everyone shouldn’t be doing it too. A smartphone is not cheap, and as a customer, you deserve a great product for your money, with no excuses. In a way, Nokia’s funny Smartphone Beta Test campaign was right. It seems that many OEMs are doing more experimentation than any other thing, and sadly only a few companies really know what they’re doing. I’d give iOS and Windows Phone 7 that title, even though Android 4.0 is now worthy of praise if only OEMs would care enough to give you all some love with it.
Not all sizes fit everyone though. iOS does a great job in not fixing what’s not broken for a lot of people, but then there’s people like you and me who prefer to customize, discover and push technology to the limit. Before choosing your next smartphone platform, it’s very important that you decide which mentality suits your needs, because a two-year contract is a long time.
If you’re a power-user that needs customizability, Android was built to keep you busy for a while. And if you’re a power-user who values apps and services that are presented in a consistent way, then iOS is the platform I’d recommend the most. It’s also a great choice for people that have never owned a smartphone, and wish to start at the basics of simplicity. Be careful though, since ironically, Apple’s way of embracing first-time smartphone adopters, is the same reason that love has turned into such a cult following by many.