Which is better – the iPhone or Android? The answer, of course, is obvious: the iPhone knocks the Android platform – currently available as the G1, with new models just starting to be announced – into the proverbial cocked hat.
The hardware is cooler, and the software much more polished. But the iPhone has also been around longer, so a more relevant question is: which *will* be better?
On the hardware side, it's clear that handset manufacturers will be playing catch-up with the innovative iPhone. They may never achieve its stylishness, but there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to match all of its features. Nonetheless, I'm prepared to concede that the iPhone is likely to preserve a marginal advantage here.
On the software side, things are rather different. The openness of the Android platform means that developers will have a freedom those working with the iPhone can only dream of. In terms of hacking the G1, that may be of limited appeal, but elsewhere it is crucially important, notably for handset manufacturers and mobile companies.
The former will be able to port Android to more or less any model, and to add such bells and whistles as they wish. And yet even this is not the most important aspect of such portability.
Where I believe that the Android platform will really score is outside the mobile domain. For not only can the code be ported to other mobiles, it can be used for – well, anything.
The obvious application is for the rather nebulous Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), but here's an even more interesting possibility: netbooks. Freescale is already there:
Chip maker Freescale, which began making chips for small netbook laptop computers last month, plans to expand its offering to include chipsets for Google's Android operating system by next quarter.
The price is particularly significant:
Freescale believes netbooks built around its technology will be able to be made at a cost of about $100. Netbook prices currently start at about $200.
That is, these Android-based ARM systems could be part of the next wave of price reductions that will push netbooks down to £100 and less.
Of course, Freescale's announcement is still at the level of marketing hype, but it is nonetheless indicative of how people are starting to think. And the crucial element is Android, because once you have netbooks running the stack, then you will have a spectrum of hybrids that can mix mobile and netbook features. Again, this is something free software is ideal for: there are no constraints on experimentation, and the tools for trying things out are readily available.
This is an aspect that Apple will simply not be able to match. Even if it comes out with a netbook that is based on the iPhone, developments will always be limited to what Apple wants to do and is capable of doing. In any single well-defined market sector Apple might well be able to produce the coolest and best machine. But create a fluid situation, where originality and flexibility are key, and Apple will lose that advantage to open source solutions.
And it doesn't stop there. Here's another fascinating hint of what lies in Android's future: