First sold to the public just four years ago, the Apple iPhone melded the vast potential of the Internet with a multimedia player, a still and video camera, e-mail, texting, instant messaging, social networking and other applications — now 425,000 and counting — into one elegant, easy-to-use touch-screen package. And it makes voice calls. Rarely has one device so upended a market.
The author found Samsung's Droid Charge “congenial.”
George Frey/Bloomberg News
The iPhone 4 was a “revelation,” despite a tight keyboard.
This week Apple said it sold 20.3 million in the quarter that ended June 30, 142 percent more than it sold during the same quarter a year ago and two million more than the previous record for a quarter. Apple shares hit a record high of $400 after its quarterly profit of $7.31 billion soared past estimates, giving the company a market value of $360 billion. It is America’s second-most-valuable company, surpassed only by Exxon Mobil.
Is Apple’s dominance insurmountable? Just over two years ago, when I was shopping for a new phone, nothing seemed close to rivaling the iPhone. It was available exclusively to AT&T customers, so I reluctantly settled on a BlackBerry model (the Pearl) available to Verizon subscribers like me. A few weeks ago, I had to ask directions to a restaurant from a young woman I spotted on the street using an iPhone. She quickly obliged by producing an easy-to-read Google map while the Pearl, whose tiny screen made it all but useless for Web browsing and navigation, languished in my pocket.
Apple ended AT&T’s exclusivity earlier this year, and this month I was eligible for an upgrade to a new device. During the years since I’d bought the Pearl, an array of new devices using the Google Android operating system had appeared, and Research in Motion had introduced several new BlackBerry models. Limiting the original iPhone to AT&T subscribers brought Apple lucrative payments from AT&T and heightened the device’s aura of exclusivity.
But I wondered: had Apple waited too long, given the pace of change in the industry, allowing Android and RIM devices to catch up, or even move ahead? I decided to compare three rival mobile devices: the iPhone 4, and Android and BlackBerry models.
The stakes are enormous. For all Apple’s recent success, a titanic battle is now under way among Apple, Google, RIM and a recent alliance between Nokia and Microsoft, with Amazon, Twitter and Facebook waiting in the wings. Even as iPhone sales soar, sales of Android devices are rising faster. The consulting firm Millennial Media estimated last month that Android devices accounted for 54 percent of the global market for smartphones, followed by Apple with 26 percent, RIM with 15 percent and all others with less than 4 percent.
This battle is only partly about the devices themselves. Google doesn’t make or sell them, instead licensing its operating system to pretty much anyone who wants to use it, including HTC, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and most of the world’s manufacturers. Google makes money from advertising, and wants to use the Android platform to dominate search and display advertising on mobile devices. Apple makes a lot of money selling iPhones, but the devices are inextricably linked to applications and content sold by Apple, like products from the Apple App Store.
As John Jackson, an analyst who specializes in mobile and wireless technologies at CSS Insight put it, “At the end of the day, this is a battle between Internet giants for control of what you do and consume on your mobile device and beyond. It will all turn on the ecosystem.”
For my experiment, Verizon lent me an iPhone 4, a Samsung Droid Charge and a BlackBerry Bold. I immediately unwrapped the iPhone. Like all Apple products, the packaging was as elegant as the device. It fit comfortably in my hand and pocket. Voice calls were clear, with none of the antenna problems I’d read about when the iPhone 4 was introduced. Web browsing was a pleasure, with fast download speeds even at 3G levels. As an iPad and Mac user, I felt instantly at home, with familiar apps already installed and easy to use. My only complaint was the relatively cramped touch keyboard. I was spewing out typos and often fighting the aggressive auto-correction feature. I suppose none of this is news to the millions already using iPhones, but to someone like me, the device was a revelation.
After several days, I realized that I had to stop using the iPhone or this wasn’t going to pass muster as an objective test. So I turned to the Samsung Droid Charge.
Who designed the packaging and marketing? Samsung takes the Android imagery to absurd lengths, with vaguely Star Wars packaging and sound effects that seem aimed at teenage gamers. My first impression was that it was an embarrassment to anyone over 30. But then I took a closer look at the device itself. It’s big (5.1” x 2.7”) but surprisingly light (5 ounces compared to the iPhone’s 4.8 ounces). Its curved edges made it comfortable to hold and it slipped easily into my pocket. The large screen is amazing. Even though I wasn’t familiar with the operating system, I found the instructions clear, the device easy to use and intuitive. I found life in the Google ecosystem surprisingly congenial, with seamless Gmail, Google search, calendar, mapping and navigation. The 4G Charge did everything the 3G iPhone did, only faster (in areas with 4G coverage) and bigger. Photos and video were especially impressive. And the touch keyboard was so big and tactile that my typos all but vanished. I can’t say it was flawless — searching for restaurant recommendations in Old Saybrook, Conn., I kept getting results for Old Seabrook, N.H. —but I don’t think I can blame the phone.After these dazzling results, I turned to the Blackberry Bold. As someone already using a BlackBerry, I found its operations instantly familiar, for better or worse. The screen is bigger and better than on the Pearl, but still cramped. Web search results appear in type so small as to be unreadable, and the cumbersome magnifying feature was no better than on my old phone. As for the vaunted BlackBerry keyboard, I made more typing mistakes than on the iPhone. I’ve seen other peoples’ thumbs fly over the tiny keys, but I have large hands, and I never got the hang of it. On balance, the Bold was an improvement over my old phone, but not a serious contender.
The Blackberry Bold 9900 was an “improvement.”
RIM shares plunged 15 percent last month after the company said it shipped just 13.3 million smartphones during the quarter, below its estimates. Given my experience, that’s not surprising. RIM has been promising a new operating system, but hasn’t announced a release date for mobile phones using it. It’s hard to believe that the BlackBerry brand once dominated the market.
My two-week trial period over, I wrestled over the iPhone versus the Charge. Then my decision crystallized: I’d close my eyes to the Droid packaging and buy the Charge, because of the bigger touch keyboard, the large size and quality of the screen, and, to a lesser extent, the 4G download speed. Mine is only one decision in a vast global market. I’m delighted so far with the Charge and have been showing it off to friends. Still, I haven’t yet had enough experience to determine if the Android Market is an adequate substitute for the Apple App Store, or to explore many of the features and apps. Apple is introducing the iPhone 5 later this year as well as its iCloud storage services for Apple devices, and it may well leapfrog its rivals.
But my experience suggests Apple no longer has the field to itself. Devices like the Samsung Charge and HTC’s much-praised Thunderbolt have radically changed the landscape.
Apple says it welcomes competition. “Well, now they have it,” said Mr. Jackson, the CSS Insight analyst. “Samsung and HTC are both ascendant. They’ve bet big, on larger screens, great user experiences and 4G.”