Google’s new mobile ambitions will put Apple under new pressure
Mobile phone manufacturers claim their handsets are designed to last four years – but consumers will be asked to change their phones faster than ever over the next few months as a host of new devices is released onto the market.
Last week, just days before the announcement of Steve Jobs’ death, Apple announced the iPhone 4S, an upgrade rather than a revolution for its world-leading model; two days later HTC announced its new device, focusing on audio performance. Google is soon to unveil its new flagship model, likely to be called the Nexus Prime, and major announcements are expected from the newly resurgent Motorola. The pace of change is dizzying.
One theme, however, emerges clearly: both Google and Microsoft want to respectively maintain and establish their positions alongside Apple as major smartphone powers. Google has numbers on its side, with more than half of all new phones sold now running the company’s Android operating system. But its problem now is to establish the operating system as a real rival to the ease of use the Apple iOS has pioneered.
Google’s next major mobile announcement will see it launch a new version of the Android operating system, codenamed “Ice Cream Sandwich”. This will be the first that, like Apple’s iOS, provides a unified experience across both tablet devices and mobile phones. The effect, the company hopes, will be to galvanise the app developers who make an OS feel vibrant. Thus far, it’s been Apple that has hogged their attention because iPhone and iPad users remain much more likely to download paid-for apps rather than free ones.
That means Google’s announcements are likely to focus on software rather than hardware. The Nexus Prime will be manufactured by Samsung - their current flagship is the S2, and according to some surveys more customers aspire to own an S2 than an iPhone. It’s a top handset because it’s very slim and light, but packs an excellent screen and adequate battery life: if Samsung keeps up those standards, it can credibly claim to rival Apple’s equally impressive but considerably heavier iPhone 4S.
So it’s likely to be software where Google will focus, but that doesn’t mean new features per se. The company has Google Wallet in some parts of America, where its phones can replace credit cards and be used to swipe on touchpads to pay for goods or services, and it has voice recognition already launched in many more countries than Apple’s new rival Siri service.
Consumers can expect bumps to features, but the major emphasis for Google needs to be on the ease of the user experience: Apple continues to feel slicker, and even more so thanks to the 4S’s new superfast processor. In fact, it’s the general sense of an intuitive interface that Google will seek to give: that doesn’t mean radical changes, it means a tightening up of all the little details. In essence, Google needs to learn how to make its software feel like it’s more than the sum of its parts. And if it can do that, the march of the Androids could yet take a real bite out of Apple.