Why is competing with Apple's iPhone so difficult?

It's a common mistake, very convenient to Apple, to think that Apple doesn't care about the specs of the iPhones. The iPhone is behind on almost every spec when compared with an Android device. And as a person who favours Android over iOS, I admit that there is a very valid reason behind why the iPhone remains the world's best selling smartphone every year.


It's not that the specs of a device don't matter, It's because the same specs mean different things under the Android and iOS ecosystems.

iPhone 7 plus

The iPhone's battery is the best example. At IFA2016, Huawei advertised its new Nova lineup of smartphones by noting that they have almost double the iPhone 6S' 1,715mAh of battery capacity. This is a very typical asymmetry between an iPhone and its closest competing android devices. To compete with the iPhone's battery life, Android manufacturers have to continuously build larger, denser batteries to offset inefficiencies. Granted that most Android devices have larger displays when compared with the iPhone's 4.7" display, but even the iPhone 6S Plus which has a 5.5" display still has only 2,750mAh of battery capacity. This is quite a large gap as the baseline for any new smartphone is 3,000mAh in the Android world.

Now consider the implications of this inequality in power efficiency. batteries are dense and heavy objects that require a significant amount of space, so to design an Android device that lasts as long as an iPhone and yet as thin and light as an iPhone requires the manufacturer to outdo Apple's engineering. Most if not all Android manufacturers have to run just to match Apple at a walking pace. And since a bigger battery takes longer to recharge, Quick-charging methods have to be developed which have their own disadvantages.

Samsung's approach to competing with the iPhone is to reach new hardware milestones first and at breakneck speeds. This strategy back-fired this year with the Galaxy Note 7 recall, caused by exploding batteries. The main reason for this is the chase for higher density batteries and aggressive fast-charging methods. Samsung pushed too hard and failed. These are the kinds of risks manufacturers have to take to compete with the iPhone.

And all this time, Apple has been quietly improving their devices, the iPhone 7 is now water resistant (officially), it has stereo speakers and LTE-Advanced for faster cellular connectivity. While others struggle to match Apple, they are adding features that the iPhone was behind on.

One important point that most manufacturers fail to understand but which Apple religiously follows is that,

EVERY SPEC HAS A THRESHOLD AFTER WHICH ADDING MORE OF IT IS NOT VALUABLE AT ALL.

The iPhone's power efficiency comes from two major factors, none of the models have a high display resolution, and neither of them have as much RAM as a typical Android smartphone. The resolution factor is a great example of knowing when a spec stops being important. Samsung, LG, HTC, and all the others have all reached higher resolutions than the iPhone, but the iPhone with it's low-res display still gets damn close with the higher-res displays in terms of image quality. Apple has included just enough resolution for everything except VR applications. Such control over the number of pixels on a display leads to a longer battery life.

About the memory, this is more a distinction between the philosophy at Apple and Google. Apple is very aggressive about killing background processes and dumping background apps from memory to storage in iOS, whereas Google is much more relaxed about this and lets Apps stay in memory for longer. The difference being, An iPhone can feel just as responsive as an Android while having half the amount of memory. And since RAM consumes power, less RAM means longer battery life again.

iPhone side

Giving credit where credit is due, Android manufacturers have been able to build phones the same size as an iPhone with specs that are many times better than the iPhone. But even after they fix the problems with the spec requirements and design issues, the classic problem of hardware fragmentation raises its head.

Each new iPhone generation has only one processor and two display sizes and resolutions that developers need to optimize for. And since they already know the exact hardware that their software is going to be executed on, the code can be extremely lightweight and efficient. Whereas on Android, there's a large diverse device market with different kinds of processors and even architectures to optimize for. Not to mention the different display sizes and resolutions and no minimum requirement for API levels or hardware whatsoever.

Apple has sold a billion iPhones, Tim Cook told the world at last week’s event. Every quarter, tens of millions more iPhones get added to that incomprehensibly large number. And the latest iPhones have Apple’s fastest and best processing chips, creating a much more enticing platform for game development.

A developer can invest more heavily (and reliably) in an iOS game, knowing that the hardware platform is better defined and the user base is more willing to spend on apps and games. These are just some of the advantages of a company being able to develop its own operating system, custom chips, and hardware design in parallel.

THE IPHONE’S SPECS MIGHT NOT SEEM IMPOSING, BUT THEY ARE

Yes, the iPhone is defined by its superior user experience and unmatched ecosystem of apps and accessories, but the nexus of it all lies within the device itself. The iPhone's specs don't seem to imposing on paper, but they are. And every generation when Apple says they added a casual 14% larger battery, a wider camera aperture and better more powerful processors, all the competitors are forced to go even further in terms of design to keep up.

To get on an even footing with Apple, overcoming the limitations requires the manufacturers to build something better than the iPhone and then price it lower than the iPhone so as to entice customers and developers alike. It is because of this very competitive market that so many companies are taking up the challenge to produce some real fine engineering.

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