Everything is an iPhone

Do you remember when Android first came out? Does anybody? The internet has a very short memory, So let this be a reminder; Android was actually in development before the iPhone was introduced. Here is something else you may have forgotten. Android was originally a clone of the Blackberry OS. At the time, the was no iOS to copy. Once the iPhone was unveiled, Google scrapped their Blackberry clone, and started making an iPhone clone.

I know you've heard all this before. Until now, this could all just be dismissed as the ravings of rabid, iPhone fans. No more. Now, the people in the know are coming out and telling all. As it turns out, the real story is exactly as we rabid iPhone fans laid it out all those many years ago. At one, fateful moment in time, the iPhone completely changed the world of technology, and reset consumer expectations for what a smartphone was supposed to be. Today, a manufacturer simply cannot be successful releasing a smartphone that diverges too far from the template set by the iPhone. Today, everything Is an iPhone.

Here is a bit of reading to put the last couple of paragraphs into perspective:

By January 2007, they’d all worked sixty-to-eighty-hour weeks for fifteen months—some for more than two years—writing and testing code, negotiating soft­ware licenses, and flying all over the world to find the right parts, suppliers, and manufacturers. They had been working with proto­types for six months and had planned a launch by the end of the year . . . until Jobs took the stage to unveil the iPhone.

Chris De-Salvo was an engineer working on Google's early Android project:

Chris DeSalvo’s reaction to the iPhone was immediate and visceral. “As a consumer I was blown away. I wanted one immediately. But as a Google engineer, I thought ‘We’re going to have to start over.’”

And perhaps best of all, Andy Rubin, then director of the Android team at Google:

“Holy crap,” he said to one of his colleagues in the car. “I guess we’re not going to ship that phone.”

There is plenty more. This story has been making the rounds for the past few days. The truth is out there, and it can no longer be dismissed or denied by those who found it inconvenient. To me, the most important part of the revelation is that everything is an iPhone. There are no viable alternatives to the iPhone. There is only the iPhone, and the stuff that wants to be the iPhone.

Consider the smartphone powers before the iPhone. There was Windows Mobile from Microsoft, Nokia's Symbian, RIM's Blackberry, and Palm. Not one of those platforms exists as a going concern. Blackberry is in the zombie state where they are dead in every way that matters, and they are the only ones who don't know it. Palm is barely a greasy spot on the technology superhighway. Nokia was bought by Microsoft to form a distant #3, and that, only because the others were even slower to react to the iPhone.

Speaking of reacting, they all did, eventually. The ones who reacted fast enough and shamelessly enough, are the ones who are around today as a going concern. Google wins the prize for reaction time. The moment they saw what a smartphone was supposed to be, they scrapped everything and began to rebuild around the new template. That is why Android is the big, anti-iPhone player in the market. Palm did their best to pivot. But they actually wasted a cycle ridiculing the iPhone. By the time they came around to building a somewhat shameless clone of their own, they were out of money and out of time. WebOS is barely a memory.

RIM's story was similar, but somehow worse than Palm's. What makes it worse is that, while Palm was always just a scrappy little player in the market, the smartphone market was RIM's to lose. And they found a way to do just that. They wasted even more time ridiculing the iPhone, not to mention money and effort on staying the course, a if the iPhone had never happened. By the time they caught up to the fact of their own death, the world was glad to see them go.

Symbian once ruled the world. Today, no one buys a Symbian phone on purpose. The iPhone exposed Nokia as the world's, cheap phone. It wasn't long before the only people buying Nokia phones were those in third-world countries who couldn't afford anything better. The marketshare enjoyed by Nokia was not a product of the fact that people loved their products, but that it was the only product people could afford. The iPhone was one of the first smartphones that people loved. Once exposed, Nokia's weakness proved to be insurmountable.

Microsoft was also slow to respond to the iPhone. That failure to respond is only one of the many reasons why Microsoft is currently looking for a new CEO. They eventually scrapped Windows Mobile, and have adopted something they call Windows Phone. Windows Phone was their belated answer to the touchscreen revolution set off by the iPhone. It is only the #3 platform because Palm is completely dead, along with WebOS, and Blackberry (no longer RIM) is losing marketshare faster than the Titanic lost buoyancy. Even so, it would still be nothing if not for the partnership Microsoft was able to forge with Nokia.

Then, there are the individual, Android players: HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung. Motorola has only survived as a wholly owned subsidiary of Google. The others are just up jumped OEMs who saw which way the wind was blowing, jumped on the Android bandwagon, cloned quickly and often. None of the existing players have brought anything particularly new to the table. They have simply tried to be better iPhones. They are not offering an alternative vision of what a smartphone out to be.

Originally, Google asked the question, “what would happen if we made an iPhone, but with a keyboard?” * Next, they asked, * “what if we made an iPhone with every feature left out of the iPhone?” * Now, they have settled on answering the question, * “what if we make a completely open iPhone that is freely available to our ad networks, and that offered endless options and customizations?” Always, though, the question starts with the iPhone as the template.

Google and their partners seem to be content to follow this template approach for most of their initiatives. *What if we had our own app store? What if we offered our own music and movie store? What if we made our own, digital assistant? * One might argue that these questions have led to better results than what Apple started with. But it cannot be argued that these things have led to a different paradigm. Everything is an iPhone that answers a different question. * What if we could make a really cheap iPhone? What if we made an iPhone that gave the carriers everything they ever wanted? * My point is that at the end of the day, it is all just another take on the iPhone.

Today, the iPhone is no longer a product; it's a euphemism. It has become a generic on the order of Kleenex or Xerox. Just last week, I was dealing with a person who swore she had an iPhone. It has Samsung right on the front of it. To her, she has a Samsung iPhone. She cannot process the idea that her phone is not an iPhone. Make no mistake about it; Google and the carriers promoted this type of confusion, and are now quite successful at convincing the market that the iPhone is less a product, and more a category that is made up of many manufacturers and products. Apple's iPhone is just one of many.

Yes, Google shamelessly copied, and facilitated the copying of the iPhone. It was done methodically and intentionally. It is difficult to imagine the alternate history we would have if they didn't. I suspect that most of the companies currently in the smartphone game would be out of business. However, I also believe that we would have a viable alternative to the iPhone, a true, competing vision to what a smartphone ought to be. That is the competition I want to see. I don't need Google, or anyone else to make me a better iPhone. Apple does that every year. I want to see the product that makes me want to ditch smartphones as we know them. That is exactly what doesn't happen when companies are allowed to copy.

David Johnson