Android smart phone bites Apple

Posted: August 08, 2010

Exactly a week ago, in a cozy theater, it happened: The Apple "cult" got a taste of its own medicine.

An ex-iPhone owner - a tech addict who owns more remote controls than kitchen glasses - pulled an Android smart phone out of his pocket and shoved it into the face of a man seated in front of him.

The unsuspecting victim, minding his own business, smiled awkwardly as he held up an iPhone that looked oddly peevish against the provocateur's Google-backed competitor.

It was a mine-is-bigger moment, for sure - a game well known in the iPhone club, where Apple's stylish smart phone has been as much a brandishment of status as a symbol of taste and tech savvy since its debut in 2007.

And there is more trash talk to come: Google's smart phones are catching fire with consumers.

On Tuesday, two days after I witnessed the Android-iPhone smackdown, a text message from a friend landed in my BlackBerry.

Beth didn't like cell phones until recently, seldom returns e-mails, and is anything but a status diva. For her, shopping is a necessary evil.

"I have a Droid!" Beth wrote me. I nearly had a stroke.

Thus was born what I call the Beth Bellwether. If she's blowing in Google's direction, others must be, too.

Sure enough, on Wednesday, NPD Group released market-research findings that showed Android smart phones had taken the lead among consumers, ahead of BlackBerry and third-place iPhone.

On Thursday, with evidence of a shift mounting, I walked into the Beauty Shop Cafe. The corner coffee shop is in a Center City neighborhood brimming with wired people in their 20s and 30s. I asked aloud:

"Droid versus iPhone?"

Within seconds, a customer piped up.

Designer/builder Reese Browne, 40, put down his iced coffee, reached into his pocket, and pulled out an HTC Evo 4G - an Android smart phone he had bought about a month earlier, even as Apple's new fourth-generation iPhone was grabbing headlines.

"I decided on the Droid," he explained to me later, "because it has the largest screen, and it's extremely easy to type on, and it's very easy and intuitive to use."

Browne is practical - sort of like Beth. He considers a phone a tool. And in the contracting business these days, he said, people expect replies to e-mail immediately. So he made his first smart phone an Android last month, partly because he wouldn't have to change carriers from Sprint.

And that is at the heart of Google's strategy: Offer consumers choice with the cool that comes with smart phones.

Apple builds and sells just one iPhone, and buyers absolutely, positively can use only AT&T with it. But Google is letting a gaggle of manufacturers build different Android models that run on the four major cellular networks - Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T.

Staying with Sprint was so important that even Browne's mate, Jeremy Kucholtz, bought an HTC Evo Android last month - and Kucholtz is an Apple connoisseur.

Kucholtz is 33, an art director surrounded by the all-hype type. He works in the Web-design business and uses only a Mac, which he loves, at his Center City office. He understands the branding power that led 200 people to line up on Walnut Street just about a week ago, when Center City's first Apple store opened.

But Kucholtz couldn't get around the problems with the iPhone's service.

"I can tell you that everybody I know who has the new iPhone complains about the dropped calls," he said. "I have a number of friends on Facebook that rant about it and say, 'Please stop dropping my calls,' and I just post a sarcastic response to it and say, 'Do you still love your iPhone?'

"And then," he chuckled, "I post a link to the HTC."

Word has definitely gotten around, too, about bad reception and the now-notorious antenna glitch on the fourth-generation iPhone that hit the market this summer.

"With all the bad things that people have heard about AT&T, they're not willing to jump over to AT&T, even if the iPhone is great," said Bonnie Cha, senior editor for cell phones at CNET in New York, which rates and reviews consumer-electronics products.

In addition, Google is horning in on cool.

There's a "Google Goggles" application for Androids - "mind-blowing," said a colleague and iPhone loyalist who works at Philly.com. It takes pictures of an object and produces a list of Web links on the phone screen.

Think Google Search without the typing.

Another app finds night-sky constellations.

Talk about tearing a page from Apple, which has an app that claims to repel mosquitoes.

To stay competitive, some speculate Apple will introduce an iPhone next year with multiple cellular carriers - a rumor that surfaces frequently but has yet to come true, Cha said.

For now, strap yourself with snark as the smackdown continues.

"I think it's going to be a very close competition for a long time," Cha said, "but I think Android's going to surprise a lot of people."


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.

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