Sun Tzu, Android and water: Android is winning because it can evolve in many directions

Sun Tzu art of war.jpg

I was trying to explain this reasoning about why Android is winning although Apple seems to be getting a lot of mindshare ..

Android is winning simply because it can morph in many directions . This makes it a very powerful opponent to overcome since it is hard to fight against water ..

Sun Tzu compared military tactics to Water in the Art of War

Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards… Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.

This is not merely an idealistic viewpoint and needs some explanation since it has profound implications for Apple, Nokia, LiMo, Bada and others

Last quarter, US sales of Android phones beat the iPhone by about 7 percent. Mobilecrunch says that The real reason Android is outselling the iPhone: Android is everywhere. Gigaom adds that Android is the hottest ticket in town

I agree and the reasons are because Android is (relatively) open than other platforms and it is designed to morph(transform) along many dimensions

The competitive positioning of ‘Open’ is often hard to gauge but the company which succeeds in this strategy gets very significant rewards.

Here is why:

1) Open means allowing others to add value to your platform or service

2) You need to be open since products and services evolve faster than you can plan for

3) They also evolve in unpredictable directions than the platform creator anticipated.

4) Once you accept this, then you have to consider that if products and services are evolving fast and in unpredictable directions (whether you like it or not), then it is better to have YOUR product evolve in the right directions (faster than a competitors)

5) Problem is of course: You don’t know the direction, but by being like water(fluid) you leverage the community to morph your product

Android can evolve in three directions(from the efforts of others):

- Hardware(handset vendors)

- Software(open source) and

- Services(apps developers)

Of course, Google maintains control over Android through the Android governance model. Thus, there is a tradeoff. But most people seem to accept the benefits of Android (in comparison to the Governance model)

The tradeoff has tangible benefits because:

- Google contributes code to Android. This makes a big difference

- The level of abstraction / differentiation has shifted to higher levels anyway. In other words, very few people are expecting to make money from software alone.

- Android provides a community of developers to those who adopt it

Thus, the platform is able to morph through existing handset vendors(ex 20 Android phones from LG ), new entrants to the handset industry(Dell), Operators. The evolution continues beyond handsets to tablets and even android TVs

The devices range from top of the range phones to 20$ phones on Amazon

This has profound implications for other platforms because the greater the community, developer support and rate of evolution – the harder it is to compete against. In other words, it is now a race for Nokia, LiMo and others to compete against the rate of change of Android and that will be hard.

And what about Apple and the iPhone?

The iPhone will always have a place and a value but it cannot scale especially considering the recent harsher/closed strategies of Apple. As Anil Dash says: Secrecy does not scale

Thus, I see that Android is already winning through a very fluid, Sun Tzu like strategy.

Image: Sun Tzu

comments welcome


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  1. Michael Scharf says:

    Two quick thoughts..
    1. Sun Tzu never confused water with all liquids. Water does not morph, water does not change, water remains water.
    2. Another possibility that Android is slightly outselling the iPhone is that the iPhone is only available to 29% (AT&T’s market share) while Android is available to about 90% of the market (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, TMo). What can we learn from these numbers…
    1. A huge percentage of AT&T’s base has chosen the iPhone and a much smaller percentage of the other three top carriers have chosen Android based products.
    2. If the iPhone was on just one other carrier (say the smallest, TMo) it is very likely that the iPhone would best all the Android products combined in the US market.
    3. Apple has made this choice for some reason – I don’t pretend to understand why. But they have given up the additional sales for a reason.

  2. dissident says:

    Yes Mike, but part of the iPhone’s viability depends on the huge subsidies afforded from an exclusive agreement. Which is an inflexibility of the iPhone itself.

    Android is like a cat, very nimble.

  3. kevin says:

    @dissident: First, Apple has exclusive agreements in very few countries (US, Spain, China, Germany, Japan). Second, Apple has said on their quarterly conference call that the iPhone price to carriers doesn’t differ much between exclusive and non-exclusive carriers. Finally, Apple’s margins on iPhone have been deduced to be close to 60%. Shaving $100 off the $400 subsidy would not affect the viability much, yet put it in the same ballpark with other smartphone subsidies. Apple can charge the carriers that much because the carriers are willing to pay that much for whatever benefits they see the iPhone bringing to their network, not because Apple needs that amount to make it viable.

  4. Tom Ross says:

    iPhone is also very successful in non-exclusive markets. The last 12 months have been all about moving away from exclusivity for Apple.

    The brightest examples are France and the UK, where the iPhone is now available on 8 different carriers (and even from Apple without contract or subsidy).

    In France, the iPhone now holds more than 50 % of the smartphone market (according to Le Figaro) and in France as well as in the UK, Apple holds 10 % of the overall phone market (according to Bloomberg).

    These are fantastic results, and Apple will keep moving in the same direction this year. Germany, Spain, the Netherlands are set to switch from exclusive to multi-carrier, and potentially China, Korea and the US may follow, depending on negotiations there.

    I find your water analogy inspiring, and of the top of my head I think we can apply it to two of Apple’s strategies:

    - they changed from strong exclusive contracts to multi-carrier contracts
    - they changed from a US focus to an international focus (65 % of iPhone sales are now international, about from 10 % in 2007).