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How Apple won the West (and lost the world)

Android, even RIM and Java, taste victory

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Open ... and Shut The spread of high-end smart phones throughout the rich, developed world is largely made possible by expensive data plans. Such plans enable carriers to subsidise expensive iPhones and Android devices, to the point that even a big swath of teenagers in the Western world can realistically plan to buy iPhones and iPads.

Small wonder, therefore, that as dominant as Apple has been in developed economies, it remains a pipe dream in emerging economies, which continue to buy Symbian feature phones en masse. When a consumer in an emerging economy buys a smartphone, it has traditionally been a RIM Blackberry. Increasingly, however, that "Rest of World" market is moving to Android and this, more than any competition for the hearts and minds of the rich, may decide the smartphone battle for Android once and for all.

Mobile analytics company Flurry released data in December that suggests a rising global middle class – 1.8 billion strong – is ready to buy iOS and Android devices.

Since Apple's launch in China in 2009, plenty of prognosticators have declared that despite the two-year data cost for an iPhone, hordes of middle-class workers would spend their entire annual income to own an iPhone. And, according to the data, plenty have.

But other data suggests that emerging economies may be much wiser with their limited incomes than the developed world has been with its bloated wallets. NetMarketShare data, for example, pegs JavaME as the world's fastest growing mobile operating system. That same research shows iOS and Android in decline, with Symbian and Blackberry both growing since October 2011.

It could be that the data is off, of course, but it's highly plausible that in the case of most of the world, people can't afford expensive hardware, nor pricey data plans to subsidise the hardware.

This is why RIM, for all its stumbles in developed economies, is growing strongly in emerging markets. And it's why JavaME, which powers low-end feature phones, remains a very big deal, even if it doesn't generate much revenue for Oracle.

It's also why Android, not iOS, has the most potential to dominate smart phones and tablets, globally.

Apple controls most of the mobile handset industry profits, which isn't likely to change much. Apple has always focused more on profit margin than market share. If given the option of minting billions in rich markets or dropping prices through the floor to compete aggressively in emerging markets, Apple is going to laugh all the way to the bank.

Android, by contrast, is a ready-made platform for both high-end and low-end smart phones, the latter being a great upgrade from the developing world's feature phones and Blackberrys.

Google technical lead DeWitt Clinton articulates this well:

For some pundits, it's all about which companies are building the fanciest and most feature-rich handheld computers. Which, if we're being honest about it, are devices for those that already have everything. When you're at the top, it's great to see the tech giants going head-to-head and competing for our dollars like this. Having a few dollars, I benefit from that, too.

And yet in spite of that, I'm even more excited about seeing a $25 mobile device that has access to a killer web browser and endless mobile apps, and watching that device appear in the hands of a billion school children over the next 10 years.

This isn't a question of which device is better. Pinch/Zoom founder Brian Fling can argue that "the iPhone is the perfect mobile design and development platform", but that's an irrelevant argument for the farmer in Uganda or the office worker in Chile. Which is why Kenya's Safaricom has already sold 350,000 Android-based, $80 smart phones to a populace which averages a $2 per day living allowance.

Thom Holwerda is thus largely correct in asserting that "the iPhone's impact on the world is negligible", whatever its impact on markets for the rich. This isn't to disparage what Apple has done, but to put it in context, and to serve as a reminder of just how revolutionary Android promises to be for the world. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analyzing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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