Why No One will Beat Apple at their Game

So often in the marketing of new phones, tablet and computers, you hear how the product will better than whatever Apple's current offering is and how it's the iPad or iPhone killer and it's finally arrived to save us from Apple. Or whatever. Yet I've noticed something, every year, every new release cycle, there's always an iPhone killer coming out, which would suggest that the iPhone and iPad or whatever Apple comparison you want to make, hasn't been killed yet. I'll go so far as to argue that Apple hasn't been beat at their own game yet, and never will be, unless Apple themselves falter.

What is it exactly about the iPhone or iPad that makes it such a great device that arguably no one else has been able to top it yet? Apple uses now the same design in their handsets for two years running, the iPad is essentially just a scaled up version of the phone. What makes it so hard for everyone else to compete with? Why is there no true iPhone or iPad killer even close or on the horizon?

The answer is not the phone or tablet itself, but the software it runs and the ecosystem Apple has developed around these devices. I will argue that some of the best devices Android has to offer are actually better pieces of hardware than the iPhone. They have things the iPhone doesn't, like LTE radios or bigger displays and they allow a level of customization the iPhone doesn't and probably never will. The problem is, these other devices from all these other manufacturers are never going to stand up to the level of integration that Apple is afforded by controlling the hardware and the software.

The only other company who is remotely close to the position Apple is in strangely enough is RIM with their Blackberry lineup. RIM's problem is that they were so completely upended by the release of the iPhone that they still haven't been able to recover from the initial blow from Apple followed by the knock out punch from Android. Clearly managing this type of hardware/software marriage isn't easy, otherwise RIM would be wildly successful and we wouldn't be speculation about buyout offers from other companies.

Part of what helped Apple so much was they did it best first. Now obviously they weren't the first to release a smartphone platform, Microsoft, RIM, Palm and others beat them to that. In fact, if you look at the first iPhone, it was almost a high end feature phone than what we consider a true smartphone today. It had no outside apps, a limited set of built in apps for network connectivity and required connection to a PC or Mac using special software (iTunes). Sounds like a pretty restrictive environment to me. If anyone was going to beat Apple at their own game, this was the time, this was the place, way back in 2007. As we all know, no one was ready. No one was prepared for the way a simple, well thought out, elegant user interface would inspire consumers by the millions. That right there is what is key to the whole reason why Apple was able to establish their beachhead in the mobile industry and they are the only ones who can lose it.

By gaining the support and user base of millions of consumers, Apple was able to grow and evolve the iOS platform by providing software updates with new features (something unheard of before) like the App Store that drew not only consumers, but the ever important developers into Apple's ecosystem. This tight harmony of hardware, software and now external developer support has made Apple into something that no other company can be. Google makes the software, but no hardware, and even the hardware they stamp their Nexus name on doesn't always get the same treatment as the newest Nexus. Microsoft makes the software, and a desktop/tablet OS in Windows 8 and probably will come the closest to challenging Apple at their own game, but by not controlling the hardware, Microsoft is fighting a different fight than Apple.

Apple is simply playing a different game than everyone else. Companies like Nokia, Samsung, HTC, and Motorola are playing for the Smartphone market or the tablet market, or maybe even both, but Apple isn't looking just at those markets individually, they are looking across their whole ecosystem, and asking questions about why a consumer should want to use a Mac if they have an iPhone and you get answers like iMessage support in Mountain Lion. Last time I checked you couldn't get a computer from HTC or Nokia. Samsung does cover all three markets, but their phone doesn't add anything to their laptop. How could it? One is running their heavily customized version of Android and another is running Windows, two competing platforms.

Developers inside and outside of Apple
are the ones driving their dominance.
Apple is going to continue to push the boundaries of what it means to be in total control of an ecosystem. They are going to make it seem silly to want to own any other device on any other platform, because it will mean compromising on the whole experience and only getting part of it. Why would you buy an Android when you can't send messages from your computer to other Android users the way iMessage works? Why would you buy these other devices knowing that you have to download other programs and sign up for extra services to get your pictures from your phone to show up on your computer automatically? I see Apple pushing their huge developer base to start working on companion Mac apps for their iOS counterparts to complete the whole experience. This will only work to further lock people into the iOS ecosystem and make it so they don't want to leave for anyone else because there won't be the tight level of integration that the Apple ecosystem affords them.

Businesses have and will continue to build themselves up on the backs of these mobile apps and then the desktop apps. Switching to another platform wont even cross their mind because it will mean having to spend time, development costs and huge resources to migrate to a new platform. The smartphone market may look to be dominated by Android right now, but that is because the true smartphone market began only in 2007 and is still very young. Apple have been through cycles of adoption before and they lost once to Microsoft, they aren't going to lose this one, worst case I see a stalemate between two platforms, and I don't think Android will be one of them.

So the next time someone says they are going to out Apple, Apple. Take a step back and realize what they are saying doesn't make any sense, because you could build a phone that beats the iPhone in specifications just like some already have, but it doesn't mean anything without an ecosystem to back it up, without the full experience that an integrated hardware, software and developer solution can provide. I think Apple's forthcoming Mountain Lion OS is just a teasing taste of where this relationship is headed as this new environment created by Apple matures and grows into an all out digital revolution even more-so than it already has.