Apple’s Well-Earned (If Worrisome) Stranglehold

Ewan Spence declares that Apple has “taken down” Android, and it’s hard to argue with him:

Through careful financial management, Apple built up the resources to invest heavily in component hedging. The ability to buy components years in advance and have a monopoly on supplies of a product, has been used time and again to keep Apple’s bill of materials low while restricting the availability of new technology to its rivals. …

If you’re competing against Apple, you’re not going to be allowed to fight with the best components, because Tim Cook reserved them years ago when he was in charge of Apple’s operations. …

Apple has managed to raise its game and create better devices, while at the same time reducing the options for Android and forcing them onto a developmental path that suits Apple more than it suits Android. In parallel to this, it continues to bring in more money from the high-end of the market, and using that money to prevent any competitor becoming established.

If I worked for, say, Morotola or HTC, this might be the point where I throw up my hands and say, “Fuck it. I give up.”

But there’s no way to get around the fact that in the big picture, Apple has been masterful in establishing its utter dominance of this space. They invent the first and most viable form of the touchscreen smartphone, more or less inventing the category itself, and as Spence explains, leverage their popularity to take over the very means of producing smartphones generally. The more popular their devices, the more they can assert control over the components and manufacturers, which allows them to more easily make even more popular devices, and it just snowballs.

And from both a business operations perspective and a product design perspective, they have entirely earned this dominance. They made more or less the best devices, and also brilliantly carried out their operational strategy.

At first blush, it can feel unfair, particularly if you’re like me and (currently) prefer Android to iOS. But what first strikes one as unfairness is really about fear. I want Android devices to be great, and Spence’s analysis makes me worry that there is a ceiling above which Android devices can never get beyond, because Apple has eaten up the means of production. But it’s not unfair. Apple just got there first, and continued to do it better.

But it still could suck for people like me.

As I said, Apple’s earned this place. As bored as I am with iOS and iPhones, I would still be hard pressed to recommend to any non-geek any smartphone that isn’t an iPhone. It will give them the fewest headaches, confuse them the least, and will more or less hold their hand through the phone-ownership process. Android has gotten easier and friendlier to the point that I could see my wife owning an Android device and her relying on me for questions, but not so that I could recommend the same to her iPhone-toting aunties and uncles. (That said, one of these non-geek aunties has a Galaxy S4, and she’s perfectly fine.)

Support is also a huge factor here. Apple’s ubiquity will mean that their users always have someone to turn to for service and support. (See my whole thing about Apple Stores as embassies.) Is Samsung’s support infrastructure robust, fast, and friendly? I don’t know, but the fact that they plant their flags in Best Buys, which are black holes of customer service, isn’t encouraging. I do know from experience that companies like Motorola try but struggle to offer meaningful support, and don’t even get me started on a company like OnePlus, which seems incapable of offering even the veneer of support – one gets the feeling that they hope you just go away once you’ve bought their phone. As much as folks in our family get frustrated with Apple and their iPhones (and they really do), I can only imagine how out in the cold they’d feel if their HTC One or Moto X shit the bed.

This is all to say that until Apple totally blows it, or rots from the inside somehow, this is probably just how it’s going to be for a long time, or at least until the next technological paradigm. And I don’t mean smartwatches. Nor do I mean VR or Internet-of-things stuff; that’s all part and parcel of the era we’re currently in, and if Apple decides to enter one of those markets, it can once again buy up all the parts, design something gorgeous, and leverage its market and cultural dominance to bolt ahead of everyone else. It’ll have to be something else completely, something Apple hasn’t even explored seriously, or is unaware of. Your guess is as good as mine.

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