The battle of the tech geeks just got more intense.
For as long as Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system has been in release, tech geeks have been arguing over which is better: Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS with its “walled garden” approach or Android’s “openness” that allows users and developers to do just about anything they want.
To date, most consumers haven’t really cared that Apple’s iPhone and iPad restricted what they could do. When your primary concern is that your smartphone or tablet behaves as advertised, that third-party apps don’t crash your system and that you don’t accidentally brick your device by deleting the wrong system files, then Apple’s “It just works” mantra is enough for most.
Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) just dealt Apple a serious blow in this area, though. Facebook Home, the Android-only feature being rolled out on April 12, could be the first serious threat to Apple’s “walled garden” approach.
Android has been customized before. Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) went all the way and completely customized its own version of the OS for its Kindle Fire tablets. And many Android smartphone manufacturers include customized user interface layers on their Android smartphones. Doing so helps them to differentiate their devices from competitors and lets them add functions, like easy access to their own app stores. Samsung (PINK:SSNLF) has TouchWiz and HTC employs a user interface layer called HTC Sense, for example.
In contrast, iPhone users are limited to basics like changing their home screen desktop and putting icons in folders — deleting default apps (like Apple’s Maps) is a no-no and good luck trying to arrange app icons in anything but the neat matrix Apple chose.
Yes, you can get around these limitations by jail-breaking an iOS device, but now we’re getting into the hardcore user group. Only a few million customers jailbreak their iPhones and iPads.
Apple’s approach has been the status quo since the iPhone first appeared in 2007, and while Android has become the dominant mobile platform by market share, iOS has been holding its own in the 20% range. (Not bad for a platform supported by a single manufacturer). Market share aside, Apple has been selling iPhones at a heady clip — in its last quarter, iPhone sales were up 23% year-over-year.
Facebook Home could be the first serious challenge to Apple’s iOS model at the consumer level. The demos of Facebook Home look pretty sweet, if you’re into that sort of thing — and many of Apple’s customers are.
A January TechCrunch article revealed some very telling stats about mobile users and Facebook, based on independent site analysis conducted in November 2012:
- Android Smartphones accounted for 192.8 million active monthly Facebook users, while the iPhone accounted for 147.2 million.
- 73.6% of the estimated 200 million iPhones in service at the time were actively using Facebook’s iOS app.
These numbers have not been confirmed by Facebook itself, but if they are even remotely close to being accurate, they paint a picture of iPhone users who love their Facebook.
Apple currently gives preferred integration status to Facebook in iOS. For example, if you snap a photo, one of the default sharing options is Facebook, but that level of integration is nowhere near the Facebook Home experience. Not even close. And there’s no way to replicate Facebook home under the existing iOS framework.
When it comes time for a new smartphone, iPhone owners are among the most loyal out there (88% of U.S. iPhone owners say their next phone will also be an iPhone), but Facebook Home’s Android exclusivity might finally be the wedge that makes some of these people reconsider their platform choice.
Booting Google Maps off iOS (which was a disaster) didn’t do it, refusing to play ball with the NFC mobile payment drive didn’t do it, and balking at adopting the 5-inch displays that smartphone users seem to prefer didn’t do it. But denying diehard Facebook users the full experience they expect after seeing Facebook Home might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Given Apple’s preferential treatment for Facebook, this move could be seen as a slap in the face. Cult of Mac thinks Steve Jobs never would have allowed Facebook to get away with actively promoting Android, dissing the iPhone and having the nerve to build Facebook Home using “poached” Apple engineers. The site is calling on Apple to remove Facebook’s favored status from iOS in retaliation.
The problem is that Apple would risk alienating iPhone users further. And what do you replace Facebook with? Google Plus? Not likely, given Apple’s current vendetta against Google.
Yup, Zuckerberg’s move has really put Apple between a rock and a hard place. Apple’s only real move at this point is to wait and hope that Facebook Home falls flat and the fuss all goes away.
If Facebook Home is a hit, however, Apple will have to decide if it has the bandwidth, partners and user support to open a three-front war by adding Facebook to Google and Samsung on its “used to be friends but now mortal enemies” list.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.