Android has good reason to fear Apple's resurgence

Suddenly, the punditocracy is saying Samsung's best days are behind, and Apple may dominate mobile again

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In China, a year ago the punditocracy was abuzz with predictions that Samsung would trounce Apple because the iPhone 5c wasn't cheap enough to gain mass adoption. Now that the sales data are in -- whatever their reliability -- we see the iPhone 5c and 5s did better than ever in China. The "overpriced" iPhone beat Samsung's flagship model, even if Samsung's overall sales surpassed Apple's. But China's Xiaomi beat them both using AOSP phones that look suspiciously like iPhones.

Of course, China is a special case -- its government is systematically attacking Western tech companies in an attempt to favor its own companies, many of which have deep, if hidden, government connections. It blocks Google's services because it doesn't want anyone but itself to spy on its citizens. (Meanwhile, Xiaomi phones have been found to send user data to a Chinese server. Surprise, surprise.) It wants Western tech companies to make their goods in China (where their technology can be copied and given to Chinese "partners"), but not sell them there.

So let's put China aside as a highly manipulated market in which Western tech companies really should rethink their involvement. In the rest of the world, the basic trend is this:

  • Apple's iPhone series leads the U.S. market, and that lead seems to be growing as Samsung has had a series of disappointing Galaxy models and HTC has failed to ignite any real interest in its One series. Each new iPhone sells better than its predecessor, and it's clear everyone believes that will be the case for the new "iPhone 6" models to be announced on September 9.
  • Europe is divided from country to country, but it's largely the province of major Android providers like Samsung, followed by the iPhone in the 15 to 25 percent range and, in some countries, pockets of Windows Phone sales in the 5 to 10 percent range. Like the Mac, the iPhone has never been dominant in Europe (not even in terms of reputation, unlike the United States). But the European market wars have stagnated, so most eyes are elsewhere.
  • Japan is practically an iOS-only country, as it is for Macs.
  • South Korea shifts allegiances frequently, but "full" Android devices dominate.

It's the rest of the world that's up in the air, as Nokia Symbian, Nokia Asha, and BlackBerry devices -- the old market leaders -- fade away and Android and AOSP device makers seek to fill the vacuum. So far, the cheapie Android and AOSP devices are winning the masses. (The iPhone is, unsurprisingly, the choice of the rich.)

But there's a sense that "full" Android devices, iPhones, and maybe (but probably not) Windows Phones will supplant them over time as those countries get richer and want more than substandard devices. The truth is we won't know for several years how the various winds blow there.

So is Apple poised to resurge and dominate mobile as it did in the late 2000s? Yes and no. I do believe Apple's mobile platform is both technically better and more compelling than Android devices, even those from the likes of Samsung and HTC, who both make good products. I'm not one to pay attention to the endless Apple rumors, but the indications I'm getting out of Apple suggest we'll finally see some significant iPhone advances next month that will only add fuel to the iPhone fire.

But as with the Mac, the iPhone is a premium product, whose real price was masked by carrier subsidies now coming to an end. That limits the iPhone's growth mainly to richer nations.

As a result, I believe we'll see a similar pattern for smartphones to what we see in the "Mac versus PC" trend: The iPhone will continue to grow share in richer nations, even as subsidies end. Android buyers will in aggregate take almost all of the rest of the market, divided between Galaxys (which cost as much as iPhones) and basic but reasonably capable Android devices like the Moto G from Motorola Mobility. That'll leave the middle-of-the-road Android devices out in the cold, as well as Windows Phones. The strong Apple bias in the United States is a factor, but we'll see that same basic trend in other developed countries, even if the Apple contingent is a smaller percentage there than in the States.

As for tablets, the iPad will continue to dominate "real" usage -- the Android tablet platform simply can't do what the iPad can. Capable Android tablets aren't appreciably cheaper than their iPad counterparts, and the cheapie models aren't satisfying buyers, as market share data shows. Until there's an Android tablet equivalent to the Moto G smartphone, iPads will continue to dominate across the market's price segments.

This article, "Android has good reason to fear Apple's resurgence," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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