Though Android powers the lion's share of superphones, Google's mobile OS won its enormous market share by being widely available across many phones, many carriers and many nations, often at prices that would give Apple accountants a laugh. The features of the OS were decent enough to be competitive, but few ever sang of their beauty and grace.
Now Android is attempting to justify its ascendancy with a head-to-toe software revision, and its competitors should be afraid. If Google's previously frumpy, inconsistent OS was enough to gain majority smartphone market share, what's to stop this elegant, intelligent update from solidifying that dominance?
When the news hit, I went over many of the new features of Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich. Taken altogether, they not only represent Android once again meeting or beating the features of competitors. For the first time, they represent a desire by Android's keepers to unify look-and-feel throughout the OS, to have a single design language, much like that of iOS or Windows Phone. In fact, you could say that the new Android borrows equally from both Apple and Microsoft, to make a product that is arguably stronger than both.
Bad news for Apple
Although the public seems to have gotten over its initial revulsion to the iPhone 4S — a far cry from the iPad-inspired Droid-stomping iPhone 5 we were hoping for — the new iPhone lacks freshness. Reviews are mostly favorable, but focus on the updates, such as the amazing new camera and the even more amazing voice-activated assistant, Siri, and less on what's not there: A competitive 4-inch screen, fast 4G network capability, near-field communication and more.
Meanwhile, the iOS 5 update mostly brought iPhones up to the level of Android, with cloud backups and other PC-independent features, plus a pull-down notification center that was essentially borrowed straight from Android. Even iMessage, a service for messaging across all iPads, iPhones and iPod Touch models, is a well-executed homage to similar services by RIM and yes even Google.
Apple does still maintain advantages over Android. The focus of attention during the iPhone 4S launch has been the voice-activated Siri, as I said. Make no mistake, Apple's heard-but-not-seen little helper has handily trounced Google's own voice services, and will continue to develop and impress us further.
And when it comes to music, movies and streaming video, Apple is still the best. It has the strongest offering of content for purchase, as well as the best line-up of premium content apps, such as the Xfinity app for iPad that streams on-demand cable video. Beyond that, Apple devices connect easily to a universe of entertainment products — from docks and smart TVs to in-car audio systems — with no rivals even coming close.
Apple's relationships with magazine and book publishers continues to flourish, tied to the momentum of its unstoppable iPad tablet. No one should ever overlook Apple's ability to get a majority of its users to pay for stuff. Only Amazon currently has the power to compete with Apple on the media front, and for now Amazon is sticking with tablets.
But Ice Cream Sandwich not only meets iOS 5 on many levels — tabbed browsing, screen grabbing, spell checking — it's got a barrel of one-ups: You can place and re-size widgets on your home screen for immediate information, without digging into apps. You can organize favorite people into an easy-access folder. You can visually track your mobile data usage. You can unlock your phone with face recognition. And though iOS 5 brings in-camera photo editing to the iPhone, Ice Cream Sandwich does too, with way more ways to tweak those pixels.
Worse news for Microsoft
What's bad for Apple is even worse for Microsoft.
(Msnbc.com is a joint-venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but that doesn't impact the discussion here.)
A key feature of Android 4.0 is People, a contacts listing that automatically aggregates information from social networks as well as your own personal address book. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's one of the main selling points of the still-nascent Windows Phone. Its other big selling point? Glance-and-go "live tiles" on the home screen, that show quick updates about weather, email, music, social media and more. Android has had widgets that do a similar job for a while, but Ice Cream Sandwich makes them even more smart and customizable.
Even the look and feel of Ice Cream Sandwich should freak the Microsoft people out a bit. Its fierce two-dimensionality, high-contrast white-on-black text and brightly colored rectangles of information clearly suggest a shift away from iPhone ... and straight towards Windows Phone.
Because of how the wireless business works, Microsoft competes more directly with Google than either of them do with Apple. After all, they pitch their wares to many of the same hardware partners. Any blurring of the lines between the two products only benefits the incumbent dominant player, and gives shoppers on the fence less of a reason to hop completely over.
Android's Achilles' heels
Android still has some problems, systemic ones that don't go away with a makeover, no matter how dramatic. First of all, its so-called openness — its ability to let users run unauthorized apps, or manipulate the system at a core level that is locked up on iPhone and Windows Phone — has caused the platform to become a hotbed of security threats. The next great virus wars will be waged on mobile platforms, mostly thanks to Android.
In part because of the security issues, and in part because of Google's occasionally hostile relationship with content holders, getting major Hollywood entertainment on Android has been a slow, painful process. Companies are coming around, piecemeal, but the leads that Apple has are great, and even Amazon — whose upcoming Kindle Fire tablet runs an older version of Android but is unsupported by Google — has more experience getting money for paid content.
Finally, Android has always been its own worst enemy. The arrival of Android 4.0 means even further "fragmentation." Though the term can be used indiscriminately to describe anything from differing screen sizes and processor speeds among models to the inability of developers to keep Android apps up to date, the problems are real. Ice Cream Sandwich is a pie in the face of anyone who recently bought a phone running the previously hot Gingerbread (Android 2.3), or the once-cool Froyo (2.2).
In the past month, thin, beautiful, big-screened, dual-core smartphones from Samsung, Motorola and HTC have landed at every carrier in the U.S. Yet with no guarantee that any of them will be updated — except for the Ice Cream Sandwich-powered Samsung Galaxy Nexus — they are all basically obsolete.
More on the latest Android OS and devices from msnbc.com:
- Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich explained
- Samsung Galaxy Nexus: Most ambitious smartphone yet
- Motorola reveals Droid RAZR, world's "thinnest" smartphone