It's been reported the Apple has lost some sales ground to Android-based phones. Scott Lowe offers his take on what Apple needs to do to turn this around.
I never thought I'd become an Apple fanboy, but as I walk around with my iPhone 3GS on my hip, while holding my Apple iPad 3G in my hand and keeping my MacBook Pro safely ensconced in its bag, I realize that I'm a walking advertisement. To be fair, I didn't buy the MacBook Pro for OS X (I run Windows 7 via VMware Fusion), but rather because I really like the hardware and practically live on my laptop... and I'm really picky about what I use. I also eagerly await the sweet goodness that is sure to be the next iPhone.
Looking back not that far, it's easy to see that the iPhone took the world by storm. Pardon me for saying this, but, at the time, it was "magical" and, yes, "revolutionary." Although little has changed with the looks of the device since its initial iteration, the innards have evolved to a point where the iPhone is a pretty handy thing to have around. Apple beat sales record after sales record to become a dominant player in the smartphone space.
How quickly fortunes can change.
It's been widely reported that Apple lost its lofty second place perch this last quarter to none other than Android devices based on Google's mobile operating system. Was this because Android is superior to the iPhone OS? I don't know. I can, however, think of four things that Apple needs to do immediately in order to get back to that second place position.
#1: Get Flash working - somehow
Yes, I know, Steve Jobs wrote a manifesto with his thoughts on Flash and why Apple refuses to support it on the iPhone. I'm not the biggest fan of Flash, but the fact is Flash remains a major part of the Web experience for a lot of people. Sure, Apple has a ton of games and the like in the App Store, and many video sites support both Flash and the iPhone-friendly H.264 format; that said, taking this unilateral stance on what is a major part of the Web -- without giving customers a choice in the matter -- is arrogant and is evidence that the iPhone ecosystem really is closed and proprietary.
If Apple is really worried about security, make Flash apps run in a sandbox. If the company is really worried about battery life, create a user setting that enables or disables Flash. In any case, leave it up to the user to decide what is best for their needs.
#2: Fix what is currently a bizarre app approval process
Much has been written about Apple's app approval process... or perceived lack thereof. Even Microsoft learned early on that independent developers are the true lifeblood of the company, without whom the company would never have gotten to where it is today. After all, if there were no applications for the platform, what would be the point of running Windows?
Although the iPhone has enjoyed tremendous success, there is significant developer discontent over seemingly arbitrary decisions by Apple that can make or break a company. (In a recent TechRepublic poll, 68% of respondents said they would not sign Apple's iPhone Developer Program License agreement.) Further, it looks like Apple is terrified that someone will create a better app than the mother company; app store policies prohibit apps that significantly reproduce built-in functionality. Frankly, I'm astounded that Apple actually approved the Opera Web browser app.
Apple needs to do two things in this area: 1) lighten up and let the developer community truly thrive -- the developer community is an asset, not a hindrance, and 2) release clear guidelines as to what is and is not allowed and then stick by it -- in other words, stop making seemingly arbitrary decisions.
#3: Go "carrier neutral"
I know that Apple has a contract with AT&T through 2012 (well, maybe), but the minute -- literally -- that the exclusivity arrangement expires, Apple needs to release a fully carrier neutral version of the iPhone that works, well, everywhere. Google has an absolutely massive advantage in this space since it isn't limited to one subset of the mobile market. In this way, Apple is attempting to fend off the competition with one hand tied behind its back.AT&T's broken promises have not helped the situation. How many times has AT&T promised that tethering was "on the way," only for customers to see days come and go? Now it seems like people have simply given up hope on ever getting AT&T to meet what is truly an old commitment. Note: Today, multiple sites reported seeing AT&T-based tethering capability in the upcoming iPhone OS 4.0. However, there has yet to be a firm promise from AT&T that this feature will actually work upon the release of the new operating system.
This is not a device or operating system limitation -- it is the direct result of Apple's carrier choice. To be fair, AT&T definitely saw traffic spikes far surpassing expectations, and the iPhone triggered a consumer device revolution that forever changed the traffic patterns on cellular networks.
In some ways, between the to-date success of the iPhone and the challenges that AT&T has faced as a result, the iPhone is a victim of its own success. I'd expect that, if data traffic hadn't gone insane, AT&T may have already released tethering capability, but I can imagine that the company is terrified to see how quickly the infrastructure would be crushed by such a move.
In short, the feature should have never been promised. Assuming that Apple eventually adopts a carrier-neutral stance with the iPhone, that will do two things: 1) increase the iPhone target market and 2) force some users away from the overloaded AT&T network. It seems like the end of AT&T exclusivity would be good for both AT&T and Apple. Maybe then iPhone users can get features that are already enjoyed by Android users.
#4: Stop being big brother
Apple has made it very clear that explicit content on the iPhone will not be tolerated, and it has gone so far as to say, "Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone." While I applaud the company's commitment to keep questionable content out of the hands of minors, this black and white stance will not serve the company well in the long run. Further, other actions (whether accidental or intentional) have made it very clear that Apple simply holds too much editorial control over content made available via apps in the App Store.
In April, Apple initially rejected a submission to the App Store because the content included satire ridiculing a public figure, which Apple decided is against its App Store policies. The person who submitted the app recently won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning. To be fair, Apple later changed its stance and asked the developer to resubmit its app due to the fact that the initial decision was "a mistake that's being fixed."
Frankly, Apple should never have made the initial call in any way on editorial content -- with the single exception of particularly graphic material. Sure, Apple isn't required to abide by the first amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, but as the company's products get into more hands, it's very easy to see that decisions that are being made could lead down a seriously slippery slope. Perhaps Apple doesn't like one of the candidates for the 2012 presidential election, or they don't like a particular piece of legislation; will apps supporting a position contrary to Apple's position be denied entry to the App Store? Although this is certainly an outrageous statement, as the company starts making content decisions, it could become difficult to see where the line is drawn.
In March, Apple purged thousands of apps that contained what the company considered explicit content; apps that were simply front ends to larger content repositories were not spared. Other countries take a far less conservative stance when it comes to the human body and pictures that would make the FCC have a heart attack are found in newspapers and magazines. As is the case with the print publications, the content was accessible via the iPhone app. Because of the fact that this content was simply accessible via the apps, the apps were purged.
Instead of purging or disallowing what the company considers objectionable content, why is there no enforceable rating mechanism, particularly for "grey area" content, such as the aforementioned magazine/newspaper apps? Again, depending on where you fall in the conservatism spectrum, you may find these actions either abhorrent or perfectly justified, but what is not clear is where the company will stop when it comes to editorial and other kinds of censorship.
Even if Apple continues to disallow and purge explicit content -- which is fine, but it should be done carefully -- the company has to be mindful about other kinds of editorial censorship.
You might think that I'm ready to throw away my iPhone and go buy something else. Nah. While I remain frustrated by some things -- mainly the fact that I still can't tether my iPhone -- the device remains very, very usable. It will be replaced soon... by the next gen iPhone.
What I've written about here is choice. I believe that Apple will lose significant market share unless it makes changes to its existing policies and procedures, which includes making sure that the developer community is robust and profitable. Again, for me, the value that I derive from my iPhone still remains in place, so I will keep it. If, however, I'm no longer able to get apps I want because developers have given up, or I'm not able to read the content I want because Apple doesn't agree with it (and, thus, my choice is diminished), then it will be time to move on.
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Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.