Business Report

The Spoils of the Android Wars

In the mobile-phone battle zone, each successive gadget tries to shoot down its predecessors.

I have poor impulse control. Though I manage to avoid most major vices, including all the illegal ones, I do have a gigantic closet full of formerly cutting-edge tech gadgets. My collection of video games for every console on the market draws players from all over the ‘hood here in Boulder, Colorado. But my living room and closet are nothing compared to my geek museum—actually a storage unit full of dusty old obsolentia, some of which still works. So perhaps it should have come as no surprise that I would end up involved in the Android wars.

Faster obsolescence: More than 150 million cell phones are replaced each year in the United States alone. On average, users replace their phone about every 18 months.

Mobile phones are undergoing such rapid innovation that that each new model is superseded sooner and sooner. Nowhere is this more true than in the market for Android devices, because any manufacturer can use the Android software from Google to try to outdo Apple’s iPhone—or any other Android phone. All this is a problem for someone who craves every new step forward in gadgetry.

For me, it all began in December 2009, when Google announced it would be selling the Nexus One online. I shelled out $595 and ordered it directly, with no network carrier attached. I tossed in a SIM card from another phone I had lying around and used it for a few days. Predictably, I got bored, went back to my iPhone, and handed off the Nexus to my assistant, Kelly, who proceeded to use it—and love it—as a replacement for her T-Mobile Dash.

Several iPhones later (one lost, one broken, one upgraded), I found myself pining for a Droid. I was sick of AT&T’s spotty phone and Internet service, and my friends using Verizon were no longer amused by my endless bitching, so I gave in to my urge for the new Motorola device. For a few days, I found the Droid an intriguing companion, but it eventually ended up in the hands of my wife, Amy, as a replacement for her own T-Mobile Dash. My iPhone survived another Android attack.

This past April, a month before the Google I/O conference, another Motorola Droid showed up in my office. This one was a gift that Google had sent to all 5,000 attendees. “Now I really need to use this,” I thought, “since they gave it to me.” So I did. For a month, the Droid and I were together again. The thing actually made telephone calls and connected to the Internet all the time, which was a nice change. But I found the physical keyboard impossible to use, even though I kept my fingernails short.

At Google I/O, I realized I was still carrying my iPhone along with my Droid. I used my Droid most of the time but switched back to the iPhone for apps that weren’t on the Droid yet. Although there were more and more Droid apps every day, I still didn’t love the shape and the way it responded to my touch.

And then the Android wars escalated. On the second day of Google I/O, Google gave every attendee an HTC Evo with 30 days of Sprint service.

Evo was incredible to me. I loved the way it felt. Consumers had never seen the phone before, so I had a bright, shiny object that everyone wanted to play with. The screen was radiant, making my iPhone 3 look lame. The Android software was well integrated with the hardware.

I discovered Swype, an application that eliminated the idiotic notion of typing on a glass screen in favor of a much better and faster approach. I didn’t even mind that the battery lasted only three or four hours—because I could actually replace the battery, which you can’t do on an iPhone. And making calls that my smart phone didn’t drop was a joy I hadn’t experienced in a while.

But soon, the iPhone 4 was on the market. Before long, my IT guy, Ross, ended up with my pretty Evo.

A few more months passed as I saw Android after Android introduced by every carrier that existed. The Incredible. The Droid X. Posters and billboards everywhere. My eyes were wandering something bad.

The day the Samsung Fascinate came out, I couldn’t take it anymore. I told Ross to go to the Verizon store and get me one before I hopped on a plane. I’d recently switched from Outlook to Gmail and was tired of the mediocre way Gmail was treated on the iPhone. An hour later, I was off to the airport, clutching my new Fascinate.

This time I was really in love. The Fascinate made me happy because it had all the benefits of the Evo, plus a better battery, a handful of Verizon apps that were addictive, and excellent Gmail integration. Plus, my mom and dad had just gotten Fascinates and loved them, which made me feel a little closer to them.

My iPhone-toting friends wanted to take a look. Many of them remarked on how bulky their iPhones felt after holding my Fascinate. As a bonus, I was able to get rid of my Verizon MiFi, which I used to create a portable 3G hot spot while on the road. The Fascinate has this capacity built in.

A month later, I’m still using my Fascinate as my primary phone. Amy’s Droid now looks old and tired by comparison. And the Android wars are pushing Apple, Microsoft, and RIM to up their game significantly. I am still carrying my iPhone around just to hedge my bets, but I expect that in the next few months I’ll be under the spell of a newer, funkier, and even more badass Android.

Brad Feld is a managing director of Foundry Group, an early-stage venture capital firm based in Boulder, Colorado. He is also coauthor of the new book Do More Faster.

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