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Aug 21

Disclosure: I have no financial interest in this topic. I own no stock (or puts, calls, shorts, etc.) in Apple, Google (or any other tech company–including any of the wireless carriers), and I have no applications (as a developer) on any mobile platform (yet). In fact, my family has FOUR iPhones (with a modest investment in paid apps on each), so it is in my most direct interest for the iPhone to thrive. As a matter of fact, a good subtitle for this post would be “Woe are we!”

Although not an Apple fanboy even with 4 iPhones (I refuse to pay a thousand bucks for a plastic laptop with a Chiclet keyboard–no matter how great Mac OS may be), I did fall head-over-heels for the iPhone. I could gush on for paragraphs about how great the iPhone experience was (literally life-changing), but I’ll leave that for the authentic fanboys/girls.

I say “was” because Apple ruined it for me and millions of other iPhone 3G users when they rolled out the iOS4 “upgrade” via the normal iTunes software update process. Apple’s own forums are choked with accounts of this nightmare (iOS4 renders the 3G almost unusable), and a brief mention of this issue in a July 28th WSJ blog post generated nearly 700 woeful comments from suffering 3G/3GS users.

This gaffe is the most obvious and painful to me as a user, but it is Apple’s reaction to it that is the most telling sign of the iPhone’s inevitable slide into has-been/niche status. Here’s the list:

1. Arrogant Disregard of Users

It is one thing to scorn market research because “consumers don’t know what they want” in a new product. I’ll concede that point to @RealSteveJobs and crew.

It is entirely different–and absolutely UNACCEPTABLE–to disregard the real pain caused by the iOS4 update debacle.

Refusing to provide a supported means of rolling back to iOS3.X is a brazen assault on Apple’s own customers. My degree of befuddlement about this position is exceeded only my urgency to find relief from the searing pain of the situation.

I need a working iPhone–or a replacement smartphone like an Android–and I need it now. Apple’s disregard of my needs is pushing me (and a few million of my closest friends) into the arms of the competition.

2. Android: Close Enough–and It’s Open

Speaking of Android, my assessment is that it is not quite as slick as the iPhone. But you know what? For thousands of people each day, it’s close enough. This is bad for iPhone, but much worse is that Apple’s scorned 3G users have a compelling reason to look elsewhere, and Android is there.

More strategically, what earlier Android incarnations lack in polish is more than compensated for by the advantages of openness. Apple has a long history of eschewing open standards and ceding market share in the pursuit of the illusion of controlling  the whole stack, and they are repeating the pattern in the wireless space.

Open wins–now more than ever, and Apple seems destined to sacrificially prove this once again. 

3. AT&T: A Fatal Partner

Few would argue that AT&T has been anything but an utter failure in sizing up to the bandwidth demands of the avalanche of iPhone users, but I would argue that neither Verizon nor T-Mobile would have done any better. (Sprint would have probably been the only measurably worse choice.)

Let’s face it: All the major carriers suck, and nobody could have predicted the scale and pace of iPhone adoption.

The fatal mistake Apple made was to stick exclusively with AT&T when it became clear that they were sucking wind. Apple’s market dominance would have been infinitely more secure by diversifying carriers. This is a classic case of winning the battle to lose the war.

4. Android development: Zero Friction

One of my projects will eventually require a smartphone app, and we have always assumed that the iPhone will be a must-have target. What we weren’t sure about is the Android, so I downloaded the SDK the other day to check it out.

Within 15 minutes of the download, any doubts about the viability of the Android platform for developers were vaporized. Few development environments I have seen in the past 20 years have been as easy–especially not the iPhone development gauntlet.

5. iPhone Development: Face-gravel, by Comparison

By comparison, iPhone development is like eating nails while bobbing for scorpions in a vat of hot gravel.

I hear that the Android app store has been creating logistical challenges for users and developers with download/payment glitches lately, so let’s toss a whopper of a concession to Apple and call this part a draw–despite the terrible way most iPhone developers are treated during the application submission/approval process.

We can debate app store warts all day, but anyone who simply compares the app development process will see instantly why the iPhone is a lost cause.

Woe are We (Temporarily)

This may become a great case study for Harvard Business School some day, but I don’t have the luxury of navel-gazing about it.

My family–along with those few million friends I mentioned–will suffer through this episode of the iPhone’s slide into Niche Gully, and we will come out on the other side with wisdom and a smartphone we can count on. We will survive, and we can always fondly remember the joy we felt until iOS4.

But it is such a shame. I really thought Apple had figured it out this time.

If there were ever a better example of in-the-trenches execution trumping (or undermining) brilliant innovation, I must have forgotten it.

Perhaps Steve and friends have forgotten too–or did they ever know?

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