The iPhone 5 may or may not be the most beautiful handheld device, but it barely matters anymore. Competitors have rendered its beauty and craftsmanship irrelevant. Amazon has received the message and responded with its latest set of tablets, and Google has responded with the Motorola Droids and the Nexus 7. These devices now have sufficient quality in their materials, specs, and base operating systems so that they can make any consumer happy. So if hardware is a toss up, where will the next battles be fought?
The answer: developers, integration, and discovery.
First, the very best developers will build apps that tap key trends: improved camera quality is making real-world text and face recognition more possible, geofencing data stores are making proximity–based apps more possible, and despite Steve Jobs’ assertion that God gave us 10 styli, there’s clearly a host of applications that are benefiting from pressure-sensitivity and pens. The level to which Apple and Google embrace these new technologies and extend the current state of the art in voice and gesture recognition will factor heavily into the quality and emergence of new applications. In addition, the extent to which Apple and Google can expose these new technologies — like NFC or always-on Glass cameras in Google’s case — will provide an advantage to developers.
Second, since many new applications will undoubtedly emerge for both Android and iOS at the same time, the way that the device and its applications fit into the users’ life will matter most. And it’s in this arena that Google is starting to respond with some of Apple’s own medicine. According to stats shared during Apple’s iPhone 5 announcement, the company has 435 million iTunes accounts and those users have downloaded 20 billion songs. Tim Cook acknowledged how powerful this integration is, saying “what sets us so far ahead of the competition … is how [apps, iCloud, and devices] work together.”
The alternatives Google has for managing a rich, high-quality media collection are lousy. But on the flip side, the number of people I know who are leaving their iPads at home in favor of their Nexus 7 tablets is remarkable. They’re switching because they use Gmail, Google Calendar, Maps and other Google services. The integration of these applications is deep and seamless in Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) — just like media is seamlessly integrated on Apple. Google’s offering isn’t directly better than Apple’s. Rather, it’s a step beyond because the Google services started in the cloud, not on the desktop, and the services are critical to your daily life.
Developers, therefore, can profit from this integration by deeply integrating with native services from Google and Apple. And while the XCode/iOS development environment is easier and more accessible to developers than the current Android environment, the services available to developers are far more limited. Google has an edge here, and developers are smart enough that they’ll push through the limitations of the Android SDK.
Third, it’s downright impossible to discover great new apps. Amazon realized long ago that if they were going to have a massive bookstore, they needed to make discovery work, so they built the personalization and community teams, delivering innovative recommendations and a great reviews system. Neither Google nor Apple has these tools yet. In fact, one VC commented to me that until you are featured on the App Store, your downloads will be very few. And even Amazon hasn’t solved the casual browsing problem particularly well. While “Listmania!” lists were an attempt to create a curated list of things you might like, they can’t begin to approach the experience of going to an independent, well-curated bookstore.
The third battle, therefore, is for discovery. It’s not about the devices, the OS, or even the apps themselves. And I would argue that it’s not about search, either, though a great search experience is part of the solution. A great discovery experience will require great curators, high-quality inventory, and painless trial. Apple leads in this space today, if only because of its higher quality inventory that is at least partially a result of a more homogenous platform. But there’s tremendous room for growth, as startups like Xyologic and others take on the challenge.
It’s a great time to be mobile. We have access to beautiful devices with near “classic Leica” quality, and we have increasingly integrated experiences across our maps, email, calendar, and contacts. But the next major changes won’t come in our devices: they’ll come from developers building apps that make your device even more useful, and you’ll discover these apps in new ways.