In The Smartphone Wars, Everyone’s A Winner Baby (That’s The Truth)

Android is winning! No wait, iOS is winning! No wait, Windows Phone is wi… nah, not even Steve Ballmer’s mother believes that (although I’d bet that SteveB does).

Here’s the truth of the smartphone wars: all the big players, with the possible exception of Microsoft, are winning if you define winning as “achieving the goals they’ve set themselves”. Android is winning. iOS is winning. And at the end of the day, you and I are winning too.

Of course, we all know that Apple is doing alright for itself. As was recently pointed out, the company makes more in profits than Google’s entire revenue. Its profits are spectacular. On the tablet side, leaving aside the fact that the iPad reinvented the entire category, nothing comes close.

Then there’s usage. Talk to mobile developers, and most of them want to do iOS first, because it’s where the money is. iPhone users install more apps, pay for more apps, and use their apps more frequently.

Only in one area – the sheer number of smartphones sold globally – does iOS lag behind Android. Of course, this has led to some commentators to claim that Apple is doomed, because all that matters is the number.

Of course, that makes lots of people working on Android at Google very happy. Despite their smiley, colourful, “we’re open, like flowers in the sunshine!” image, the boys and girls down in Mountain View are as tough a set of competitors as you’ll ever meet. They want Android in everyone’s hands.

But that’s not why Android exists, and ultimately it’s not the factor which will mean Android is a success or a failure for Google. Android doesn’t have to be the dominant phone platform in order for Google to win, because all that Android is designed to do is to stop Apple – or RIM, or Microsoft, or whoever comes next – from being the only game in town.

Go back two years, to Google I/O 2010, to hear Vic Gundotra spill the beans. Talking about why Google got into the phone business, Gundotra said “If we did not act, we faced a draconian future where one man, one phone, one carrier was the future. That’s a future we don’t want.”

But why would Google care about that? Despite Gundotra’s smiley repetition of the mantra of “open” vs “draconian”, it’s not because Google is a care bear of a company that can do no evil. It’s simply that it could not take the chance that its services, primarily search where it makes a massive chunk of its money, could be locked out from the majority of phones. In other words, it couldn’t take the chance that Apple would, say, one day dump its mapping app from the iPhone.

Sounds like Vic got that one right, anyway.

And in that sense, Android has succeeded. Even if Google makes a loss from Android, it will have stopped Apple or anyone else being able to permanently lock them out of mobile. Had it not created Android, Maps would still be gone from the iPhone (Apple always wants to control the technology it relies on) and Google would be locked out of a treasure trove of local data, gathered anonymously from phones. Being able to stay in that game alone is probably worth the money Google has spent on Android so far.

This is why the debates over which is “winning” – iOS or Android – are irrelevant. Android and iOS aren’t really in the same game for their creators. But the biggest beneficiaries are you and me, normal users, who get to watch (with popcorn) as two great companies push each other hard to improve their products.

Ian has been writing about Apple since Michael Spindler was the great hope of the company and Newton was the last word in intelligent assistants. He lives in London, herding cats for a living.