Is iPhone Doomed to Glorious Irrelevance?

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The news I’d been waiting for finally turned up this week. During the first quarter of 2010, Android overtook iPhone to reach 2nd place in the US smartphone market, behind Blackberry. To many observers, this will come as no surprise – Android is available on an ever-increasing roster of devices while the iPhone is just… the iPhone. It’s also worth pointing out that new iPhone models are always released in June, so there’s a possibility that this change will be reversed in Q2/Q3 – though how many consumers are aware of this, I’m not sure.

Still, the evidence does seem to suggest that Google’s ‘one platform, many devices‘ strategy might end up making the difference in achieving market dominance for a mobile OS. Both RIM and Apple are dedicated to proprietary, closed platforms, RIM on a line of Blackberry handsets, Apple on effectively a single phone. While it’s tempting to say that perhaps RIM will eventually release Android devices – their OS is so old, it would make sense – I don’t believe that’ll happen any time soon.

What I do believe is that within two years, Android will overtake both Blackberry and iPhone – and, yes, Symbian – to become the world’s dominant mobile phone operating system. In fact, Android will probably claim as much as 50% of the US market. This will be due mainly to Google’s strategy rather than any particular consumer swing towards Android. Though as it approaches 50%, Android will start to feel some customer loyalty and OS awareness, I suspect that like Symbian, many of its users will be completely unaware of its name.

But Google’s catch-all strategy won’t just make Android more popular. It’ll also actively drive users away from iPhone. Why? Because when half the people you know share data, games and more on one platform, that becomes the de facto platform for your social group. iPhone – like Mac – has achieved this sort of dominance in some very influential social sets (like people working for tech companies, in new media and in marketing, advertising and PR) but as the continued dominance of Blackberry indicates, Apple has failed to make serious inroads to become the phone of choice for many professionals in more traditional industries.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – Apple is not great at constant innovation within one product line. That’s hardly surprising because no single company seems to be able to achieve the ‘permanent revolution’  dream of a continually exciting device. Apple’s history makes its own shortcomings all too clear: the company regularly introduces exciting new products which attract a loyal user base… and then, save for occasional refinements like a faster processor, leaves those devices and moves on to new product lines. In two years, the iPhone will be slightly better than it is now. But it’ll still be an iPhone. And the iPhone, for all its brilliance and all the impact it has had, will be getting old by then. Apple will either have to innovate an entirely new phone device (no, not the iPad) or the iPhone’s user base will grow more slowly and eventually settle. Just like Mac.

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