For a long time, Apple has adopted a pose of studied insouciance towards its rivals. It has scarcely acknowledged the way that Google's Android operating system has come to dominate the smartphone market it kick started with the first iPhone in 2007.
The public attacks by Apple's marketing chief and de facto number two Phil Schiller this week were therefore extraordinary. He gave interviews to a trio of US media outlets in which he derided Android smartphones as "giveaway" devices often handed out by mobile operators as a free upgrade.
"Android is often given as a free replacement for a feature phone and the experience isn't as good as an iPhone," he said.
The timing of the broadside was no accident, of course. Samsung's Galaxy S4, the strongest rival to the iPhone and flagship of the Android fleet, was launched in New York on Thursday. With a big 5-inch screen and clever, if gimmicky, software features such as the ability to scroll down text by tracking your eye movements, it attracted the kind of mainstream attention that only Apple launches enjoyed until relatively recently.
It will be introduced to the British market just as the mobile operators are switching on their 4G networks this spring so will be well placed to take advantage of those who want fast mobile broadband first. Apple's iPhone 5 is available with 4G, but only on the EE network, which uses a different frequency to those being built by O2, Vodafone and 3.
Schiller's rare intervention is a sign, then, of the intensifying competition that has helped depress Apple's share price in recent months. From a high last September of more than $700, last week it stood at around $440. But his criticisms of Android cannot be dismissed simply because Samsung is gaining strength.
In particular, Schiller attacked the "fragmentation" of the software. Because of the way Google allows manufacturers and mobile operators to decide when to update Android, a relatively small proportion of users are on the latest version of the software. And because Samsung is reliant on Google for software, the brand new Galaxy S4 hardware will ship with a version of Android that was release last year.
"With their own data, only 16 percent of Android users are on year-old version of the operating system," charged Schiller. "Over 50 per cent are still on software that is two years old." "We are hearing this week that the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is being rumoured to ship with an OS that is nearly a year old." In contrast, Apple maintains strict control over iPhone software updates and is able to push its new software to the majority of owners within weeks of a release.
I asked Google's head of Android engineering, Hiroshi Lockheimer, about this issue last November. He dismissed it.
"We recently announced there's something like 500 million Android devices. When you think about half a billion devices and updating them all at the same time you can't even contemplate that, it's a big, big task," he told me.
Nevertheless, as well as Apple's undoubted cache as a premium brand, fragmentation is a major reason why the iPhone remains more popular among business buyers than Android handsets. IT departments are always likely to resist managing multiple versions of software, whether on a Windows desktop or a smartphone.
According to the industry analysts IDC, corporation will buy 15.1 million handsets from Android manufacturers this year, compared to 31.1 million iPhones from Apple. It will remain the number one corporate smartphone supplier until at least 2016, IDC says, and for as long as Android has "more gaps in security than many organisations are comfortable with".
The gold standard in smartphone security and manageability remains BlackBerry, which is on the comeback trail with its new BB10 operating system and Z10 handset. This week it showed it still knows how to deal with big organisations when it announced a single order for one million devices, its biggest ever.
It has the opposite problem to Android. No corporate buyer would doubt BlackBerry's security, but they may wonder whether the Canadian firm can keep up with the features users now demand and are typically introduced first by the leaders it what looks more than ever a two horse race between Apple and Samsung.
- By Christopher Williams, Telegraph.co.uk