iOS can take the top smartphone spot again

I’m starting to feel that the only reason people choose Android is because of a few small but significant problems with the iOS, the iPhone and Apple.

To the uninformed first-time smartphone purchaser, the iPhone 4 is the clear choice. Apple marketing is emotionally-engaging, the industrial design is top-notch, the device offers hardware that is still unrivaled (retina display), the base OS offers all of the features you would expect and the application quality and availability is astounding. Apple offers all of this at a subsidized price that set the bar. I remember when Windows Mobile devices were $299 or more on contract. If the iPhone 4 is $199, a device must offer an extremely compelling experience to be priced higher.

If the iPhone 4 is such a fantastic product, why is Android selling so well? Android is a very sufficient product and the only smartphone platform that comes close to the quality and breadth that iOS offers. If Android is only second best, is it selling well because of what Android does better or because of what Apple fails at? Both.

The most important difference is that Android offers multiple form factors. Apple offers a 3.5″ screen while Android offers 2.55″, 2.8″, 3.0″, 3.1″, 3.2″, 3.4″, 3.5″, 3.6″, 3.7″, 4.0″, 4.1″, 4.2″ and 4.3″ screens. Apple offers a basic touchscreen form while Android offers touchscreen, slide-out landscape keyboard, portrait keyboard, dual screens and more. If you would have picked a 3.5″ touchscreen device anyway, this is not an advantage for Android.

While it may not be a form factor issue, the fact that Android is available on every major carrier helps Android sales and exposure. If the Apple was available on the four big US carriers from Day 1, it’s possible that T-Mobile and Verizon wouldn’t have been major supporters of Android. Without the $90M Droid launch ad campaign, Android would not have the market share it does today.

While iOS is a fantastic product, Android offers a few key experiences that are simply better. Free turn-by-turn navigation as a sub-product of Google Maps is a tremendous advantage. If you are a Gmail user, the dedicated Gmail app on Android is more efficient than using the Mail app on iOS. If you view Flash sites…. haha, just kidding, Flash support on Android is a detriment to the platform. Is that it? Maps and Gmail are the only experiences that are better on Android than iOS? Disappointing.

Apple could quickly fix these few issues. Offer a few more form factors, beef up Maps and offer a native Gmail client. Done. Unlike other articles, I don’t feel that it would be a detriment to the iOS platform to offer extra form factors. The iPhone and iPad already support external keyboards; developers can design applications with a keyboard in mind already. Sure, Apple would have to be smart considering how many freaking accessories exist for the current line of products, but that’s a surmountable issue. Apple has bigger problems than what experiences Android does better.

Apple does a few things that end up infuriating users. Some people *hate* iTunes, some people *hate* the lack of customization and some people *hate* how iOS handles notifications. Boom, Apple fixed notifications with iOS 5 by straight-up copying Android. One problem down, two problems remain.

iTunes evolved from a WinAMP competitor that would only play music to an app that will play music, stream internet radio, play videos, create intelligent playlists, offer a store that provides music/movies/TV shows/books/applications, set up, sync and backup your device, trim ringtones, print jewel case inserts and more. The application is a resource hog, is unstable, is poorly organized and has lots of negative baggage. Android does no better here as Google does not provide unified desktop syncing app. You get to use a smattering of websites for most of your content (Gmail, contacts, Picasa photos), an official app for music syncing and nothing for other media types. With so much content already in the cloud and more coming (see the recent Market update that adds books and movies), maybe Android doesn’t need a desktop app at all. The iPhone, at least until iOS 5 is official, requires iTunes from the very beginning. 268,000 hits for “I hate iTunes” on Google is saying something.

Until the fourth version of iOS, you couldn’t set a homescreen wallpaper. “Any customer can have a wallpaper any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Apple is known for making strong decisions for the user but not allowing a wallpaper on the homescreen is very limiting. Before iOS 4, the only customization allowed was the organization of shortcuts on the homescreen, your lockscreen wallpaper and your ringtone. On any Android phone, you can set a wallpaper, set a live wallpaper, customize shortcuts and widgets, set your ringtone independently from your text message tone from your email tone et cetera, replace the entire launcher (homescreen and app drawer), set custom icons for all my apps at once or individually, change the startup and shutdown animations and more. None of those customizations require root access to the device. Considering how many people customize their iPhones using cases, gel skins and the like, it must be safe to say that people enjoy customization. The lack of deep customization may drive people away from the iPhone.

Apple can fix iTunes and the customization issues. Let’s tackle customization first. No would suggest that iOS 5+ should offer complete customization of all visual elements. The last thing Apple needs is for users to make their homescreen into a mobile MySpace. Jailbroken phones have access to theming engines like WinterBoard. Apple could provide similar theming functionality and offer new themes in the App Store. Intrepid tinkerers could create their own themes and sideload them, allowing for that class of user to go all-out.

Fixing iTunes may require breaking the monolithic application into several modules. There should at least be a division between the media management portion, the device management portion and the content acquisition portion. Sure, there is seemingly overlap when the user is configuring what media to sync to the device, but the division is still clear. iTunes becomes the media player, “iConnect” for syncing and management of your iPhone, iPad or iPod and “iTunes Store” for purchasing of all media content. If you pull iOS applications into the existing Mac App Store and rename it “App Store”, that’s your one stop shop for all applications. While these are all viable standalone applications, they should act as plug-in modules for each other. If you’ve already installed iTunes and want to purchase new content, clicking on a “Store” button will quickly download and install the store module. If you only use the application for playing content, you have no need for the complexity the full application offers. Split, simplify and stabilize.

Finally, some consumers are put off by the “cult of Apple”. These users were possibly burned by an Apple product in the past, don’t like to blindly follow trends or specifically want to stay away from the market leader. They are the types that will never use an Apple product, not even if the iPhone was the only smartphone available. Ignore those people as they are ignorant. If Android was the clear leader, they might find an excuse to avoid Android as well. You simply cannot win.

I love the competition we’ve seen in the mobile space since the iPhone first hit the market. I want that competition to continue as every smartphone user gets to benefit. I simply feel that iOS is closer to cornering the market than Android is catching up to iOS.