Android is not ‘cool’. There, I said it.
Sure, this year it’s almost certain that Android will overtake iOS in terms of market share. And, the Consumer Electronics Show may as well be called the “Half This Stuff is Android Electronics show”.
But, rather than simply being a question of what gets the tech world drooling, the ineffable nature of ‘cool’ has real consequences for ecosystems, economics and cultural cachet – and right now, for a variety of reasons, Android just doesn’t have it.
Apple's Cool Factor = Mindshare
Here’s something about iOS’s success that people have never been very good at understanding: Apple has become the symbol within our culture of cutting-edge technology.
You can tell this in a couple of ways. First, Apple’s products have become shorthand for the latest doodads and gadgets, like when news stories talk about “the rise of mobile technology like Apple’s iPhone and iPad”. That means Apple are like symbols of a sea-change. Secondly, Apple dictate the terms of discussion in technology: all the tech blogs ask “is this new phone as good as the iPhone”, or “will these tablets be as good as the iPad”. This means Apple are the centre, and most other tech companies are the periphery.
Commenters on tech blogs will froth at the mouth when you tell them this: “it’s not true!”, they’ll say. “X Company is more innovative, and Y company is more open!”. Even worse, they’ll tell you “Apple is nothing special, their fans are just sheep!”. What they fail to see is that whether or not it is ‘true’ in any objective sense is completely and utterly besides the point. This is about perception, not fact – and, much more importantly, the complex economic effects of perception.
How can something like cultural cachet be so important? I mean, you might well ask “If it’s just about being cool, wouldn’t people realize that it’s all flash and no substance and quickly move on?”
Maybe. But the thing is, there is something lurking beneath Apple’s ‘cool’ that complements it perfectly: a developer-friendly app ecosystem. Because there is a single, pre-established payment system that is also dead simple to use – and mandatory – delivering and then making money from apps is easy. What’s more, because there is very little iOS fragmentation – iPad vs. iPhone, 3G vs. its successors – it is easy to code apps without worrying about the hundreds of different devices that run them.
It’s an issue that John Gruber of Daring Fireball explained far better and more thoroughly than I ever could. But what Gruber spends less time explaining¬† is where culture – and yes, ‘being cool’ – fits into all this. And why does it matter?? Well, if you take that ecosystem and add it to the cultural cachet Apple has, what that means is that many of the hip, cutting-edge, innovative apps – Flipboard, Instagram, Reeder – end up on iOS first, and only on Android later, if at all.
A Vicious Cycle
It all becomes this intricate, self-contained circle: Apple make it easy to develop apps and they as they remain the cultural signs of ‘cool’ in tech; as a result, cutting-edge developers make really cool apps that people drool over (the tech world went crazy for Flipboard) which they know they can only get on iOS, reaffirming the perception – and truth – that Apple’s is the cutting-edge platform. And so it goes, on and on. As long as iOS gets those ‘wow-factor’ apps, this will continue.
Yes, yes, I know: Android has cool apps too. You can, quite frankly, tear Swype from my cold, dead hands. But when was the last time you heard the world go oohing and aahing over an Android app the way they did something with Word Lens?
And what’s key here is that Word Lens is totally possible on an Android device. But the simple fact that it appeared on the App Store first cements the public perception that Apple = the bleeding edge of the contemporary moment.
Android is great, and massively popular. But its problem – in addition to fragmentation, of course – is that the flaws in its app ecosystem translate into a perception of ‘johnny-come-lately’, which initiates a whole vicious cycle in Apple’s favor. Worse, Android could become like Windows – reliable, ubiquitous, but perceived to be simply more boring, aesthetically unappealing and predictable when compared to OS X.
Why 'Cool' Matters for Android
So ‘cool’ is a big deal, because it’s not just about marketing or perception, but how that perception trickles through to create real effects on ecosystems and the economics of that ecosystem.
So, what do Google and Android handset makers do to rectify this? Well, ‘court developers’ would be the easy answer, but in reality the first step is a single, unified payment system that skirts around the carriers. Secondly would be to deal with fragmentation. The first is simply a matter of will and infrastructure; the second is less easy, and I’m not sure anyone truly knows how to fix this.
But at the end of the day, this is the issue: should Android users be denied the innovative, cutting-edge, ‘wow-factor’ apps that appear on iOS? The simple answer is no. And if Google wish to sustain Android’s rapid rise, they’ll ensure that isn’t the only answer its users get.