With the March 6 unveiling of the SDK and associated announcements, Apple has greatly strengthened its iPhone value proposition to an extent that some have publicly called it game over in the mobile platform wars. Others, including professional Apple haters, AAPL shorters, nitpickers and link-baiters, had a field day trying to find holes in Apple’s new conquest plan.
Before calling Apple’s new position unassailable, let’s first see what the company uniquely brings to the battle field:
1. Design - Nearly half a decade after the introduction of the iPod and over a year after the iPhone unveiling, no other mobile player has caught up with Apple. With its unique position in the industry as the only truly vertically integrated company that can tightly couple its own hardware and software at the OS level, and bolstered by numerous patents, Apple’s industrial design and highly polished multi-touch interface have no peers.
2. Stores - Apple not only has the fastest growing and most profitable physical retail store chain in the U.S., it also offers apple.com, the most visited computer hardware site online; the iTunes Store, the best media download site that has sold over four billion songs; and now, what’s likely to be the best application discovery and download venue, the App Store. For developers that can see past ‘control’ issues, the promise of the iTunes Store-like App Store is genuinely outstanding.
3. Pricing - Unlike its mostly proprietary pre-Intel past, Apple can now leverage its high-volume iPod/Mac businesses to get favorable component prices and has been the industry leader in inventory and supply chain management. Backed with relentless product development, the company has mastered aggressive pricing strategies with its iPod line, offering the best price/value at every product segment. Apple will follow this proven pricing strategy with upcoming iPhone iterations.
4. Games - With a 163 ppi high-resolution 3.5″ screen, Core Animation, H.264 video, SQLite local storage, hardware accelerated OpenGL ES, 3-D OpenAL sound, accelerometer and multi-touch capabilities, the iPhone 2.0 has just become the most capable, nearly console-quality mobile game platform.
6. Depth - Apple officially announced that it regards the iPod touch as the precursor of a mobile platform. Its multi-touch patent portfolio and gesture library bridges PCs (current Mac notebooks offer multi-touch trackpads) and mobile devices of various sizes/shapes, signaling product possibilities from iTablet to Minority Report-like form factors. Economies of scale, core design competencies like power management and miniaturization and cross-device integration opportunities will give Apple an incontrovertible advantage in product design in the post-PC era.
7. SDK - Cocoa Touch, the marriage of OS X and multi-touch UI, gives developers access to the hardware, multi-touch controls and events, accelerometer, view hierarchy, localization, alerts, web view, people/image picker, camera, etc., in a sophisticated IDE. The development tools in the new SDK, including an emulator and direct iPhone diagnostics, put it at the very top of the mobile development platform pyramid.
8. Enterprise - Under Steve Jobs Apple has never directly targeted the enterprise with any coherency or intent, believing that a frontal attack on Microsoft would be suicidal. The mobile space, however, has no such entrenched competitor that Apple believes it cannot effectively compete against. So, uncharacteristically, it has begun to openly court businesses large and small and, to the extent that it can maintain its momentum and focus, the enterprise world is a new and significant market for the company.
9. Ecosystem - From automobiles to leather cases, Apple has already created the biggest-ever ecosystem around a consumer electronics product line with the iPod. No other player in the mobile space has comparable experience in growing a billion dollar plus ecosystem, which should come in handy with a growing iPhone franchise.
10. Curatorship - Some pundits and developers see Apple-imposed restrictions in the SDK or the App Store as impediments to wider adoption of the iPhone. However, Apple has proven with Mac OS X and the iPod that it can anticipate user needs, trade featuritis for enhanced user experience and carefully distill choices to create coherent and desirable products. User satisfaction surveys consistently prove actual users love their iPhones at rates far above rival devices.
Are there any chinks in Apple’s armor? Certainly. There are real and perceived ‘shortcomings’ that likely won’t change soon: dedicated enterprise sales network, physical keyboard, removable battery, etc. Others may change soon with the iPhone 2.0: video, GPS, Bluetooth A2DP, cut and paste, global search, exposed file system and so on. Some new capabilities like 3G will surely come in a few months.
What was displayed by Apple at the March 6 SDK event and the uniquely competitive factors listed above, however, should overwhelm most if not all its competitors, to echo General Colin Powell’s famous doctrine of attacking adversaries with overwhelming force to ensure victory. Apple’s arsenal is now the widest and deepest in the industry.
Who then can challenge Apple? Not Palm or Motorola (extremely weak and rudderless leadership); not RIM (no OS level hw/sw integration, little UI and very limited consumer market expertise); not Sony, Samsung or LG (no OS level hw/sw integration and limited UI expertise); not Adobe or Google (not much hardware experience). Nokia and Microsoft appear to have had the longest experience, but neither has anything like the ten factors cited above that make Apple such a well rounded competitor in this field.
As the PlaysForSure and Zune debacles have amply demonstrated Microsoft is forever saddled with the inability to choose between the OEM/partnership approach that worked on the desktop and going it alone which hasn’t in the mobile space. No doubt Microsoft will come up with its own mobile/phone hardware device and then try to balance that with its Windows Mobile licensees’ interests. The $44.6 billion question for Microsoft is, can it juggle all this with its impending Yahoo entanglement over the next three years?
Finally, how good a competitor will Nokia be? To its credit the company quickly recognized its weak points in interface development (bought Trolltech), music downloads (opened a UK-based store but it’s IE/Windows only) and online presence (recently started Ovi). Nokia is the volume leader in the mobile industry, but hasn’t really exploited that advantage, as we previously covered. It has to walk a very tight rope in order not to upset its carrier partners.
We thus see no other player that can bring as much to the table as Apple. Clearly, this is Apple’s war to lose.