Apple’s revered iPhone 4 had a bigger opening weekend than even the biggest film of all time. Avatar grossed $242 million worldwide its first weekend; the iPhone sold 1.7 million units and likely grossed more than $400 million.
Yet Apple’s legions of devotees should brace their hipster selves for an inevitable fall from grace. In addition to the iPhone 4, I’ve also been playing with Verizon and Motorola’s new Droid X, which won’t be released until July 15, and I have a bold prediction: One year from now, the iPhone will lose its perch as the world’s most important mobile platform, toppled by Android, the “open,” all-comers-welcome design from Apple’s avowed enemy, Google.
Both are digital dreams, but the Droid X (the X is for "extreme," though it also will resonate with fans of porn. Brand bonus!) does some cool things iPhone can’t.
But this isn't just geek chic. A holy war is at hand, pitting two brilliant billionaires against each other and dividing high tech’s armies of programmers in the next great Internet boom: mobile.
The rhetoric is appropriately apocalyptic. Google had to get into this business or we’d all face a “Draconian future, a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice. That’s a future we don’t want,” a Google veep, Vic Gundotra, told thousands of outside programmers in May. He was talking about Steve Jobs and Apple, of course, and his proclamation quickly went viral on YouTube.
The sides in this holy war, like most, are cleaved by ideology. At Apple, control is paramount, the rules are rigid and the design comes down to the sole purview of one man: an omnipotent control freak born in a Teutonic black turtleneck. No wonder they call the iPhone "proprietary."
Google, its founders, and its CEO, Eric Schmidt, stand for the cause of open design. Thousands of developers from hundreds of shops and dozens of device makers are free to tinker with Android all they want. They are the denim-and-flannel hippie-geeks of high tech. Free love, freeware.
To hear Google devotees tell it, this is a fight between good and evil, between freedom and control. Think Easy Rider versus Darth Vader. In less than a year, Android has lured over two dozen makers to join its loosey-goosey confederacy, and now they make 50 rival handsets. Apple goes it alone and makes, basically, one model.
Android’s inexorable advance is only a matter of time. Android phones now sell an astounding 160,000 handsets every single day. That’s up from only 60,000 phones a day in February, and 100,000 a day in May. If that torrid pace continued for Android, some 58 million handsets would get sold in a year, compared with 37 million for Apple.
Google chief Eric Schmidt told me of Android’s extraordinary demand curve in an exclusive chat on CNBC last Wednesday. Zap to the end and you’ll catch a telling non-denial denial: Schmidt flatly said Adobe isn’t “evil,” but stops short of saying the same for Jobs-cum-Apple.
Apple’s faithful, by contrast, see the light in succumbing to the company’s control. More elegant design, tighter security, fewer bugs—these are the payoffs for those who obey.
To hear Google devotees tell it, this is a fight between good and evil, between freedom and control. Think Easy Rider versus Darth Vader.
The strategy worked beautifully for Apple when it invented the iPod. But this same obsession with proprietary control all but killed Apple’s Macintosh computer line in the 1990s as hundreds of companies coalesced around the rise of “Wintel” (for Microsoft’s Windows and Intel chips).
Apple now is in danger of seeing that scenario repeated in the rise of the Androids. The company could fare just fine with its own slice of the market, sequestered from the broader and more open market for Android devices. But no longer would the entire mobile world hang on Apple’s every move, because it just won’t matter anymore.
Correction: This article misstated that the iPhone 4 does not shoot HD videos; It has been updated.
Dennis Kneale, formerly managing editor of Forbes magazine, is an on-air correspondent and Media & Tech Editor at CNBC. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal.