Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who long ago left the iconic company, today told Engadget.com, where he's a contributor, that Google's Android mobile OS appears "to be a lot like Windows. ... I'm not trying to put Android down, but I'm not suggesting it's better than [Apple's] iOS by any stretch of the imagination. But it can get greater market share and still be crappy."
In many respects, Android is to the iPhone's iOS as Windows is to the Mac: a pale imitation running a few years behind. Microsoft Windows' first two versions were awkward copies of Apple's System 6, Windows 95 was a less awkward copy of System 7, and Windows XP was a credible copy of Mac OS 8. Today, Windows 7 is an awkward copy of Mac OS X. Microsoft copying Mac OS became routine, though Apple sometimes copied Windows.
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Google has followed a similar trajectory, with Android OS 1.5 being a pale imitation of iPhone OS 2, Android OS 2.0 an awkward copy of iPhone OS 3, and Android OS 2.2 a slightly less awkward copy of iOS 4. No doubt Apple will steal a few tricks from Android.
Android adopted very much the same user interface as the iPhone OS (now called iOS), with just a few differences here and there. It also copied most of the functionality, adding a few of its own, such as voice-based Web search. Put an Android device next to an iPhone, and the copycat quality is obvious. Work with an Android device after using an iOS item, and the uneven quality of that copying also becomes apparent.
By contrast, Windows Phone 7 and WebOS both take distinct approaches to their user interfaces, and they provide a better usability experience. Windows Phone 7 has lots of problems, but the UI is not one of them. WebOS never took off, probably because its capabilities are too similar to an iPhone's and it's harder to support in a business context.
But as Microsoft proved with Windows, you don't need to be better than the competition you're copying to win. Many, many Android users love their devices -- just as many Windows users love their PCs. After all, compared to a regular cell phone, an Android device is a revelation, just as Windows was compared to DOS. Only if you've used iOS does Android lose its luster -- just as Windows feels like a cheap imitation to a Mac OS X user. But most of the world is not composed of iOS or Mac users, so most people don't have that point of comparison.
Woz is probably right: Android could easily become the mobile equivalent of Windows, and iOS could become the mobile equivalent of Mac OS. So far, Android sales figures suppport that thesis, but mobile user surveys indicate a preference for iOS. Maybe the fact that iPhones are available from just one carrier in the United States, whereas Android devices are available from them all, skews the sales figures. Perhaps the iPhone will get a boost if the rumored Verizon availability for this spring comes true.
There's a key difference in the iOS-Android competition compared to the Mac OS-Windows competition of the 1990s: Apple nearly imploded from internal warfare and self-delusion back then. There's no sign of that happening today, so Apple is unlikely to create an opening for Android as it did for Windows.
Still, the fact that Android is good enough does matter. It could be the Windows of mobile, the dominant platform. It could be tied with iOS or a strong Number 2. Whatever happens, Android has shaped up as a significant player in what is quickly becoming a two-OS environment. That's fine -- with Vista, Microsoft shows what happens when a vendor is a de facto monopoly and how a little competition really helps. After all, Vista's failures gave a boost to Mac OS X adoption, which no doubt led to the better Windows 7.
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