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Android’s Biggest Problem? It Isn’t Cool.

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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.

    1. I agree, that vid looks great. The 3D interface and YouTube/GMail/GChat apps look fantastic. But Google apps alone won’t change the ecosystem problem I’ve described above. And ask regular Joe or Jane Doe on the street where the innovation is and, regardless of fact or truth, they’ll still likely answer ‘in Apple’s garden’.

  1. @Smokes-

    NAVNEET ALANG has a GREAT point. Android is playing in Apple’s ballpark…. Apple is controlling the market, not Android.

  2. I’m glad you’ve drawn attention to this issue.

    We’ve all heard stories about the world’s most exquisite wine glasses and how if you do a blindfolded test with a regular glass and even these most expensive ones, even the experts say there’s not much impact on the actual taste of wine. So where’s the magic?

    The story, the feeling.

    Apple is very strong in pushing a story, a feeling, but Google has also taken a strong position because they have let the public develop the story (literally through opensource and word of mouth)

    Have you ever seen an android ad? Did Nexus One come busting onto every street corner with mass marketing? Nope. And yet it’s rolled in one year from 3.5% US Smartphone market share to 25.5% (Q3 2009-2010)

    I work with a small group of developers and we actively chose Android as a launch platform for our first mobile app because we know that the cool kids in high school don’t always end up being the cool kids in the long run.

    Android’s rockin out fast.

    If you have a minute, check out our free app that helps learn foreign words just by touching them on your camera phone’s screen… kind of like word lens, but provides rich context definitions instead of brutal single-word translations. This first version is geared towards english-learners, but we’re working towards other versions.

    Beta released last month as Snapanda on the android market, with a cool youtube teaser out as well.

    Android QR code:

    Would love to hear what you think. Cheers, Brad

    1. and this author knows no facts or how things work. He simply writes how he believes things work. An uneducated fanboy preaching to the masses is the last thing this world needs. Gather general knowledge about the topic you are writing about, dont blabber also use common sense. If Google is going to over take iOS then who do the masses think is cooler? …and who do Developers think is cooler?

  3. Apple definitely controls “cool” as we know it today. They have the system in place to inspire, develop, and bring to market new hardware, software, and services that easily fit into their established iOS ecosystem.

    With that momentum they have turned the tech gadget world on it’s ear and taken over where Windows was before. This isn’t necessarily a good thing because staunch Apple supporters (myself included) are starting to realize they are being swallowed up by a new Apple “establishment,” which is exactly what Apple bucked against to get to where it is now. Android is now the exception to the rule and the underdog, and given time, it will rise to compete toe to toe with Apple.

    I have already moved to an Android phone (2nd one) over iPhone and I absolutely love it. I own an iPod Touch, iPad, iMac, all sorts of older iPods, and I have to say if Android keeps their momentum I will most likely be replacing a lot of my iOS devices with their Android counterparts. Apple gets my computer business but Android/Google is looking better for all my mobile and entertainment bucks.

    That would make them even MORE cool to me.

  4. One thing i would add to explain the cool factor of Apple: Design. They put great efforts on design and the result is that user develop some kind of relation with the object. I’m not the biggest Apple fan, but i must admit, their products have souls. They’re beautiful, easy to use and fun to manipulate. Design is the keyword,

  5. I think when Apple lovers start buying Android devices instead of the equivalent Apple device (like m906 above) it says something abut the rise of Android. If only other Apple users could see through their blinkered world!

  6. Ok, please let me know when you do a real article, this is just the wrath of a mac fanboy, angry because the success of the non-advertising success of Android. And YES Android maybe doesn’t have a “cool” design or advertising, but it’s secret it’s the REAL freedom of choice…

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