Three iPhone Killers: Netbooks, MID, Android

Wednesday Aug 20th 2008 by Rob Enderle
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The top three iPhone competitors pose a threat to Apple, but may need a product generation or two to realize their full potential.

Part of what makes the iPhone special, other than its impressive number of problems this year, is the fact that it promises a near no compromise Web experience on a phone-sized device. (Granted, “phone size” seems to be drifting a bit larger these days.)

The 2.0 iPhone has had an impressive start but seems to have run into some hardware quality problems, some cloud quality problems, and Apple seems to be repeating the Atari mistake with their Application Store. (Atari nearly died when they failed to ensure the quality of their games in the early ‘90s when buyers abandoned their game console). Several of us actually argue the 1.0 iPhone is better.

Bad timing, given that Intel is pushing two new portable platforms which could eclipse the iPhone if done right (big “if” here), and Google’s Android phone platform is on final countdown and the first, from HTC, is gorgeous. In addition, Google appears to be doing a better job ensuring most of their initial applications aren’t crap, something that Apple may want to emulate.

Apple iPhone Stumbles

Were this any other company, like say Motorola, and it had a third of the problems Apple has had with the 2.0 iPhone, we’d likely be wondering if the firm could even stay in the cell phone business. But Apple is a marketing powerhouse and they can dummy up like no other vendor and ride out almost any storm.

Still, this is an impressive storm. By now most probably have figured out that Apple rushed the latest iPhone to market before it was fully tested and that the back end services weren’t done either. In addition, those flocking to the new Apple Application store, while they’ve found a number of cool applications, many are crap. And some of the best ones Apple has pulled the plug on because they did things like allowing you to use your expensive data plan for your laptop, things that Apple and AT&T didn’t want you to do.

Finally, the hardware failures that new iPhone experienced evidently is causing a lot of dropped calls, and typically folks buy cell phones to actually use them as phones. Granted, with the iPhone, a lot of folks buy them to look cool, but how cool are you really if your phone is just an expensive non-functional media player?

Well, competition is coming. And it’s coming in several flavors.

Netbooks

This is the iffiest platform because, to many of us, Netbooks are small, slow notebook computers. I’ve been using a Linux-based Dell box, using Windows XP, that will also run Windows Vista Basic. I’m a Vista user myself and while I can appreciate the number of folks who want to run XP, the experience with XP on one of these things is like a buying a brand new hot car with an interior from a car from the ‘90s.

The Ubuntu experience, while it improves dramatically on the set-up time, does far less once it’s set up. And I find I’m having to learn a whole new set of tools and utilities to use it. It actually feels older than XP does and I still think the gOS, an Ubuntu derivative, would be a better choice for these products.

Were it me I think I’d go Windows Vista Basic on this product, given the choice, but were I making one I think I’d try to take something like Stardock’s WindowBlinds and create something much more cutting edge and stunning to look at.

The advantage the HP has is that it’s a fully capable small notebook computer, which means I can do real work on it and the keyboard is large enough to actually work on. It will clearly run IE, Firefox, and Opera, so browsing is uncompromised. And while it’s a little slow, for most things it seems to run adequately. And man, is it ever light.

I’m comparing this to the Redfly which I still think is the more interesting product – a blend of the two might be perfect for this form factor. We’ll see if someone figures that out.

Finally these things lend themselves to cloud based services for content and entertainment: Services like Live Mesh, and SugarSync to sync them to other machines or content services like an application or media store. You can use generic PC resources but, for a device like this, I think a more iTunes /MobileMe offering would be more appropriate.

For this generation the Netbook probably isn’t much of a threat to the iPhone. It’s more a laptop focus and even here I’m not convinced the unique aspects of this product are yet being well showcased by anyone.

Mobile Internet Devices

These look more interesting. While the first generation, due in a few weeks, is about 4x the size of the iPhone, they have similar capabilities (including voice for some of them).

This large size lends itself more to Web browsing and video viewing, particularly if you’re sharing the video with others. For phone most seem to be going down the VOIP route and most of those will likely use less expensive Wi-Fi services than 3 or 3.5 G services. Basically they are focused products using X86 technology designed to run multi-media applications. My favorite is the Lenovo and it is being heavily used at the Olympics this year.

What makes these particularly interesting is that Intel is doing their own Linux distribution and providing it to hardware partners. This largely addresses the concerns with both generic Ubuntu and Windows above, and brings the result closer to what Apple did with the MacOS and the iPhone.

The difference remains the backend services, with the same iTunes-like requirement needed for this platform, but more focused on just entertainment, as it was for the Netbook.

This will probably grow to be a real contender in its 2nd and 3rd generations, as size of these devices drops dramatically. However, for those who want something that is connected, has a larger screen, better browser experience, and probably a better built-in camera, these might be a better alternative than an iPhone – once the solutions mature in the market a bit.

Google Android

This is clearly the big near term risk. Pictures of the new HTC Android phone are out and it seems to blend the advantages of the iPhone, the Windows Mobile platform, and the Blackberry into a single platform.

That sounds like perfection, but this is Google’s first hardware product and they have clearly been having problems with things like Gmail, which don’t bode well for initial product quality or execution. Google does get the power of the backend and they are apparently working to avoid the Apple and Atari problems of too many crappy applications for their new device, limiting the initial applications to the top 50.

This has, however, upset developers, who have flocked over to Apple. I actually think, given the Atari experience, doing this is wise.

Given how much crap has appeared in the Apple store I’m not entirely sure this has worked to Google’s disadvantage. In the end, if the phone is successful, people will move back to it. But it is that success that is doubtful, given Google’s track record and the fact this is a brand new area for them.

My expectation is that this will be a typical generation one device and will have initial teething problems; fortunately HTC is far from new to this market and should be able to mitigate at least some of the initial issues.

No iPhone Killer this Year

If there is a threat this year, out of these three, Google is the most likely to bring it to market. However, it appears that all of these platforms gain substantial advantages as they move into their second and third generations.

Key in all cases will be a blend of great hardware, modern and compelling software, mature backend services, a great out-of-box experience and a strong marketing. You’ll see parts of these from each of these platforms this year but the perfect storm of all of them is at least 12 months off, meaning we’ll need to revisit this next year.

On the other hand, several of these products may be compelling in their own right and, coupled with the right third party services, could be very useful today. Should be an interesting few months as each of these products goes through its launch cycle.

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