Here's The Problem With Apple's Ambition To Make The Best Devices: It Hasn't Been Delivering

Tim Cook Tim Cook. Photo: Getty / Justin Sullivan

Apple needs 2014 to be a good year.

You’ll know that globally, Apple’s share of the market is dwarfed by Android devices. At the end of last year, Apple had just 12% of market share – down from 14% in 2012 – compared to Samsung’s crushingly dominant 32%.

In some markets – including the US and Australia – Apple remains strong, even growing last year after the release of the new iPhone. But these are exceptions to the global trend.

Apple likes to point to some of the big differences in how people use iPhones over other phones. Take mobile shopping. Apple users part with much more money on their mobiles than users of Google’s Android platform. It may be a matter of Apple users having more disposable income, or being younger, or more engaged with their devices. Whatever the drivers behind it, it’s an important consideration for businesses who want to reach customers on a mobile device. If you’re selling over handsets you need to be on Apple.

But even this is looking scratchy with a slow but sure shift affecting one of the company’s critical advantages – the size and quality of its App Store. With the dominance of Android handsets, software developers have been putting more effort into the platform that only a couple of years ago was an afterthought when it came to app development.

Another big difference is that almost all Apple users are on the latest version of iOS – comparatively, it’s chaos in the Android world, and Google is having to take steps to address it.

But overall the momentum is behind Samsung and other Android handset makers at the moment. After the CES conference in Las Vegas this week, Business Insider’s Jim Edwards made the withering observation that Apple now risks being the BlackBerry of 2014.

We know of at least two important things happening this year that Apple will be counting on to arrest the slide.

The first is that iPhones will now be distributed through the world’s largest carrier, China Mobile, in the world’s most populous country. The iPhone has been made compatible with China’s fastest network since September in preparation.

Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke to the Wall Street Journal during the week about this and was asked, inevitably, if he was worried about the never-ending talk about market share slippage. Here part of his response:

Many many things can change but the North Star should be clear, and for Apple that’s always been making the best products in the world. That’s our strategy and that’s not changing today or tomorrow or the next day or the next year.

When you really back up and look at what’s happening in China the usage numbers are staggering. Fifty-seven percent of the mobile browsing in China is done on iOS devices. Now there are many different views of unit market share and you can choose to look at whichever one you think is most reputable, but for us that is not our North Star, we don’t get up in the morning saying we want to sell the most, we get up saying we want to make and create the best, and so that’s our strategy and it doesn’t change.

But what if the execution isn’t there to back the strategy? Put another way, what if Apple’s devices simply aren’t the best?

Last year I ditched my iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy S4. I’ve been taken aback by how much better it is.

So much so that I now pity iPhone users, especially when it comes to two critical functions: typing, and browsing the web.

The GS4’s bigger screen is so much more practical for browsing the web and general reading that doing the same on the iPhone is now a vastly inferior experience. It’s a simple matter but it’s the one thing that Samsung users who’ve switched from iPhone will uniformly say about the Samsung’s advantages. Apple has misread the appeal of, and demand for, larger screens.

There are other benefits. Typing on the iPhone’s tiny keys is comparatively fiddly and frustrating. (And a little app I’ve installed called SwiftKey now predicts full sentences for me. “I will call you later,” for example, is now done in five keystrokes with my thumb. It’s much faster. And surprisingly liberating. I’ve seen similar apps for the iPhone but none comes remotely close.)

A neat plus is the Google Now service, which surfaces what Google thinks is relevant information depending on where you are and what you’re doing. For example, it will ping you if there are traffic jams on your commute route home, or let you know you need to leave for an appointment that you have across town, having calculated the walking time to the address. And it silently drops in sports results from your favourite teams. It’s a little gimmicky and inaccurate but it’s getting smarter all the time. Again, there are Apple equivalents but the tight integration with Google services makes the Android version a lay-down misere.

All combined, the Galaxy S4 makes the iPhone look rather quaint. But going back to the initial advantage, the bigger screen is, right now, what would deter me from ever going back to an iPhone. If anything I’ll get a bigger screen next time.

Which leads to the second important thing happening this year that Apple’s doing: the anticipated release of a new iPhone, with a larger screen.

Cook talks about being driven by quality over quantity. But moving aggressively for distribution in China and tackling the most obvious strong point of the iPhone’s biggest competitor don’t present as the actions of a CEO who is unconcerned about volume.

It’s one thing to have the big, hairy goal of making the best devices. In a crowded market, where the big competitors also have deep pockets, it’s quite another to deliver on it. And at the moment, Apple really isn’t doing that.

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