In an extensive interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Apple CEO Tim Cook sought to explain how his company stands out in an increasingly crowded mobile-device market.
Apple will release two new iPhones this month, with analysts waiting to see whether those devices will continue the company’s tradition of yearly smartphone blockbusters. If Apple manages to sell millions of units, it could quiet the naysayers who think the company’s most innovative years are behind it; any perceptions of underperformance, however, will lead to excited commentary on how Apple is slowly but surely losing more ground to Android, the Google mobile operating system that runs on a variety of devices from manufacturers around the world.
But Cook insists that Android isn’t a monolithic opponent set to crush Apple to dust. “I don’t think of Android as one thing,” he told the magazine. Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon offer devices from multiple manufacturers that run different builds of Android, he added, which leads to operating system fragmentation—roughly a third of all Android phones run the “Gingerbread” version, for example, that made its debut in late 2010: “That would be like me right now having in my pocket iOS 3. I can’t imagine it.”
Cook also highlighted how fragmentation leads to a variety of problems for end-users. “It will show up for people that no longer have access to certain apps,” he said. “It will show up in security issues because if you’re not moving your customer base to the latest version, then you have to go back and plug holes in all of this old stuff, and people don’t really do that to a great degree.”
All that being said, fragmentation doesn’t seem to worry Android customers—the software has steadily gained market-share over the past few years, and certain devices running a variant of it, most notably Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones, have managed to deliver Apple-like sales numbers. Manufacturers also appreciate the ability to modify the software as they see fit; Amazon’s Kindle tablets, for example, run a version of Android modified into a digital vending machine for e-books and streaming content.
A few years ago, Apple adherents could claim that Android was an unpolished rip-off of their beloved iOS, and those assertions had a certain degree of merit: the early versions of Android running on, say, Motorola’s first Droid smartphone were leagues behind what Apple was doing at the time. But Android has undergone significant improvements in the intervening time, and now it can claim features that match—if not surpass—those found on iOS.
Cook and his executives remain committed to innovation, and Apple’s margins and profits remain the envy of many a tech firm—but it’s also a radically different mobile landscape from when the first iPhone launched. It’s not a question of whether Apple will adapt to this altered environment, but how—and if that strategy will succeed.