Android surge shakes Apple

America's most watched company can no longer claim to be the only mobile option

Topics: Apple, Android, technology, smartphones, tablets, Google, , ,

Android phones are taking a bite out of Apple.

As Apple stock continues it’s a long steep slide, investors and market watchers are speculating about whether the Cupertino, Calif.-based company can regain the mojo that made it a market favorite. But a report in today’s Financial Times (subscription required) suggests that the Android platform, now installed on three out of four smartphones sold worldwide, is exercising a gravitational pull on app developers.

Google’s Android has long lagged behind Apple in the number of available apps and the number of apps sold, but the balance appears to be shifting. “Android is the platform of growth,” Misha Lyalin, CEO of Zeptolab, which puts out the popular game “Cut the Rope” told the paper.

The article quotes one techie who personifies the platform rift:

Loren Brichter, a former graphics engineer at Apple,  and now developer of Letterpress, a word game that was runner-up in Apple’s “Best of 2012” app awards, says he is “constantly reevaluating” the two rival platforms. “I am obviously biased towards Apple but Google is catching up,” he says.

Fragmentation of different operating system versions and devices running Android means developing for the platform is “a complete mess”, Mr Brichter says, but “there are so many Android users out there, it’s increasingly hard to ignore”.

Apple still holds some advantages in the app business it pioneered. The company continues to act as a gatekeeper for all apps sold in its store, a quality control measure Android has not imitated. And with the release of iPhone 5 iPhones now account for more than 50 percent of the U.S. smartphone market.

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One question is how much this resembles the Apple/PC wars of yesteryear. Back then computers running Microsoft Windows dominated the market and a small devoted clan of Apple users survived in the wilderness secure in the belief of their superior hardware. (This dynamic is still in place despite Apple surpassing Microsoft in profitability and general perceived sexiness a long time ago.)

Apple probably did more than any other consumer-oriented company to define mobile technology, giving itself the opportunity to dominate rivals with its more curated, and generally higher priced products. But that lead is slipping. In the iPad, Apple still has the world’s best known tablet but as of the end of the third quarter it can barely claim a majority of the tablets sold.  And last month the Samsung Galaxy S III usurped the iPhone to become the top selling smartphone in the world.

It’s foolish to look too deeply into a stock but it may be fair to say that since consumers now have options, investors might want them too.

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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