Perception is everything in the smartphone war

As part of a generation which has grown up with the concept of format wars – VHS vs Betamax, PC vs Mac, Blu-ray vs HD-DVD and so on – which side of the fence you come down (or whether you even care about the existence of a fence in the first place) can say a lot about who you are, or at least how you are perceived by others.

Are you an early adopter, or just one of the crowd? Are you a technical purist (Betamax) or is some combination of user-friendliness, lower cost and greater choice and availability of hardware more important to you (VHS)? Or are you loyal to one brand, regardless of the technology?

Historically, these battles have often been fought out over relatively long timescales and have resolved themselves (or at the very least settled into some kind of equilibrium) before they really impact the mass market.

For instance, the video recorder format war played out over the course of more than a decade, with the JVC-originated VHS system eventually triumphing over Sony’s Betamax. But most consumers hedged their bets, uncertain over which format to go for and put off by extremely high costs – long before the days of £30 VCRs in Tesco, prices could easily exceed £1,000 – driving a rental-dominated market in which they could avoid committing to a definitive choice.

Conversely, the battle to become the standard format for high-definition DVD discs resolved itself within three years before HD players had ventured much beyond the realm of early adopters. The major film studios threw their weight behind Blu-ray and Sony incorporated the format into its Playstation 3 – and that was that.

Interestingly though – well, interesting if you’re a bit of a geek like me – the latest high-stakes format war is one which is evolving at astonishing speed and involves millions of everyday users, not just early adopters. I am, of course, talking about the four-way battle to control the smartphone market.

Operating system smack-down

iPods are child’s play – literally!

As an owner of an iPhone 4 (and an iPod and an iPad), I sit firmly in the Apple corner. To its devotees – which some liken to members of a cult – Apple is simply the coolest brand out there, and one which – antenna scare stories notwithstanding – is trusted implicitly by its users in the way we once trusted banks to keep our money safe, or politicians to act in the wider public interest.

I’m not in that camp which regards Steve Jobs as a messianic figure leading us to the promised App Store, but I do love the company’s ability to consistently raise the bar with iOS-powered devices which are intuitive to use – even a two-year old can easily operate one, as Zac demonstrates on a daily basis – and represent a fantastic marriage of form and function. Current generation Apple products are triumphs of style as well as substance.

Regardless of any technical discussion over the relative merits of the hardware and operating system – I’m geeky, but not that geeky – there can be no doubt that, with the launch of the original iPhone in 2007, Apple lit a fire under the nascent smartphone market, making it both accessible and desirable for consumers just as mobile internet and social networking applications were really starting to take off.

And while Apple remains a closed shop in terms of its hardware – like cereal maker Kellogg’s, it doesn’t licence its hardware to anyone else – it possesses by far the broadest offer in terms of software, with its App Store containing over 300,000 third-party applications totalling in excess of seven billion downloads at the time of writing. That’s basically one app for every man, woman and child on the planet.