Like it or not, Apple and Google is the mobile duopoly consumers asked for

Google Logo Ipad Mini 6 Iphone 13 Pro Pixel
Google Logo Ipad Mini 6 Iphone 13 Pro Pixel (Image credit: Andrew Myrick / Android Central)

Oxford defines a duopoly as "a situation in which two suppliers dominate the market for a commodity or service." It's also what countries like the U.K. say Google and Apple have when it comes to the mobile market. It's pretty hard to argue against; phones without Google or Apple software do exist but they are never going to gain any traction. (Editor's note: never say never.)

In almost every instance, a duopoly is a very bad thing. It limits consumer choice, provides opportunities for the parties in control to collude and shape the market in their favor, and drives up prices.

We've seen the Google/Apple duopoly in action and it mostly fits. The days of buying a good Windows phone for $150 are gone forever and won't be coming back. What's apparent with this dreaded duopoly, but rarely talked about, is that this is exactly what consumers and a market-driven economy wanted to happen.

That doesn't mean you wanted it to happen, so you can settle down before you jump to the comments. I didn't want it to happen, either; I think MeeGo was a better choice, or maybe even webOS. But two people aren't the deciders no matter how much we may have wanted things to be different. Consumers loved Android and iOS more and the current duopoly was born. Long live the king(s). Or something.

For a lot of people, their first smartphone was an iPhone or an Android phone. And those people might find it crazy that other really good smartphone operating systems existed before iOS and Android. Both BlackBerry and Windows Mobile had periods where they had more success than other brands. Yet no early OSs gained enough of a following to drive the competition away in meaningful numbers like we see today.

Now, we have nostalgic users who grudgingly pick up their iPhones or Androids while lamenting the loss of competition, at odds with users who happily embraced the changes and think we're all better because of them. Both are right. Both are wrong.

Luck played a part.

Google and Apple didn't just get lucky. Marketing, strategic carrier partnerships, and brand loyalty all played a big part. And even that isn't always enough, as failed phones from Amazon and Facebook prove. Somebody had to "win the app war" and no one factor could have assured a victory. Sprinkle some luck on top of the smart decisions that Apple and Google made, and you get to where we are today.

The "app war" I speak of played the biggest part from my perspective. Maybe I'm jaded, but the only clear advantage Android and iOS hold over the Windows Phone and other also-rans lies in each company's app store. Ease of use or security or even functionality just can't compare to playing Angry Birds or having a great YouTube app. This too circles around to consumer wishes.

Windows Phone

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

If you're developing an app today, you want to make it available to both Android and iOS because you are doing it to make money in most cases. You know you will make more money if your app is available to more people and that building another version of your app for relatively few users isn't going to be very profitable. In addition, you value easy distribution and monetization even if you have to wet the beaks of Google and Apple by handing over their cut off the top. It's a matter of simple economics and always has been.

Windows Phone famously died because of an app gap.

Windows Phone famously died because of an app gap. Plenty of fingers have been pointed at Microsoft about its digital storefront or development tools, but market share is the real root cause behind any app gap. Without enough users, its app store wasn't as profitable to build apps. Without the right apps, there would never be enough users. The app gap created a tech catch-22 for everyone involved and eventually, the smart business move was to shift away from trying to build a phone that could compete because no phone could compete. The same can be said for Palm, and pre-Microsoft Nokia, and BlackBerry, and every other promising smartphone idea that didn't come from Apple or Google.

Nokia N9

Source: Reuters (Image credit: Source: Reuters)

This is a problem with a clear solution that's almost impossible to achieve: build a better smartphone with better apps at a better price. Maybe fines and changes to laws or enforcement of existing laws can help, maybe not. But it's not going to be something a smart engineer building prototypes in his or her garage is able to fix.

Think about it for a minute: if I could build a high-end device that ran the latest version of your favorite operating system of the past but it had no third-party apps, do you think it would sell very well? Should governments force changes to make it sell well? Should the buying public have the final say?

The market should — and will — decide.

If you said no, maybe, and yes, then we're on the same page. We're also at the mercy of someone who isn't us making decisions that affect what we can buy. I want to buy a modern version of the Nokia N9 with all the 5G and Wi-Fi 6e bells and whistles that competes with the best Android phone, but I also want to be able to install a handful of essential apps on it that aren't available. A browser and web apps can't cover everything, unfortunately.

In the meantime, Android isn't so bad even though Google can be. We have real choices when it comes to hardware and can enjoy the benefits that come with being half of the duopoly. Let's just hope that the governments of the world don't "fix" it into oblivion.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • The article is accurate, but I will continue to argue that most people are shallow simpletons, lemmings who follow blindly the herd. I continue to consider Apple and Android devices to be overpriced crap that doesn't come close to what they should be doing - - - because the overwhelming customer base are mental midgets. Siri, Google, Bixby and Alexa are perfect examples of the stupidity and laziness that permeates design today. If you think any of them are even decent, you prove my point.
  • And yet us mental midgets drive the economy while egotistical jerks like you look down your noses and sneer. Good job.
  • The truth hurts when you realize that you also are a lemming.
  • You should know, you are the second biggest lemming on this site.
  • Painfully_obnoxious (three word limit)
  • I agree with you.
  • Although I agree with most of your premise; I have to ask for a solution! Come on lady, what is the answer? You do the big speak but you offer no alternatives. Which there is really none, if a person wants to continue to use a cellular phone in this day-and-age. As for Siri, Google Assistant (I presume you meant not just google), Bixby, Alexa, don't use, never will use to damn intrusive. Some are decent, hell some are good for what they are designed to do. Again, what is YOUR ANSWER? I would bet you have none, and I won't insult you with the reason you don't is due to your lack of mental prowess to invent and bring to market a better product than IOS or Android. Your insults to many you do not know, actually shows your extreme lack of intelligence (small mind that is) by grouping all into a few categories. Let me add to your insults and tell you, time for you to slink back to the basement. So many of us, will pick a software and stay with that for many factors. I remain with Android phones due to their integration with Windows products. However, if Apple ever allowed their product to interact with my PC, I would give them a try. As for models, I have run the gamut from Moto to LG to Moto to LG, to Samsung, to Pixel and who knows what will be next. However, in all likelihood, I started with cellular tech long before you were a drip away from being conceived. My first cellular was mounted in a vehicle, with a pig tail antenna on the back window. There was no IOS or Android software. So reading your candid, and idiotic overall statement made my day; right along with seeing some guy do a spin out on a highway this AM in the snow, slam into a tree, total his tiny car, and leave in an ambulance. Proves there are idiots everywhere.
  • " most people are shallow simpletons, lemmings who follow blindly the herd." BlackBerry still has many users who fit into this description.
  • Damn you're a whiny beotch
  • I'm not whining, I've moved on from BlackBerry. If the world left things to BlackBerry, we'd still be in crappy 4 inch displays, horrible cameras, and inefficient navigation via track pad, rather than touch screens. Sorry if I offended you, Princess.
  • The Christmas spirit is strong with this one...
  • Too right. I see the EU and others as extortionists. They are always trying to bleed Google of billions. It's a form of taxation without representation. They always bemoan the evils of Apple and especially Google yet without them those folks would be back to flip phones. It's greed in pure form. I trust Google more than I trust the EU. Sorry for the rant. Your article said it all so much more eloquently than I ever could.
  • Google and Apple are the extortionists not the EU... 30 percent royalties are ridiculous... Google and Apple broke European law... If they don't like it they should pull out of the EU... Would love to see them do just that...
  • Be careful what you wish for. I think I see a Huawei or Nokia flip in your future. You can only ride a good horse just so far.
  • Lol you would be back here whining if both of those pulled out of the EU and you had no android/IOS to use. 
  • Android is an open source OS, as you obviously need reminding of. Manufacturers manage to sell millions of devices in China with no GPS so it would be easy least I Europe. Xiaomi, BBK, HMD, Samsung etc. would be happy to provide them
  • How is Harmony OS and no GPS working out for Huawei?Hmmm?
  • Yes, android is "open source" but most of the "goodies" Google forked versions ago into their own version which is why Harmony OS and Fire OS (Amazon) never did well. Also, that still doesn't fix the one glaring issue which is all of the apps that come with Google's version of android in their play store. Look at Samsung's app store and you will see it is more than just about the OS.
  • Why is 30% rediculous? It's not like Google and Apple do nothing for that. First and foremost they developed and support the OSs that make apps possible. They develop and support the developer tools that make writing those apps possible. They maintain the store, which allows finding the apps and downloading them. That costs storage and bandwidth. They manage updates and the commerce aspect, collecting money securely, for purchases and subscriptions. They do this and get zero from apps that are free/ad supported, which make up the majority. They manage the ad delivery for most of those apps. Any developer is free to setup his own server and connectivity and manage all that himself. and pay for it. He is free to try and develop his own payment system (in compliance with all the regulations) or contract with a third party to do that, for a fee. He can do his own advertising, which he pays for. I don't know if 30% is the right number, and both Apple and Google have reduced that recently, but the service they provide is way more than just collecting money. As a comparison you might want to look at how much of the money you pay for car gas actually goes to the gas company, how much the farmer actually makes from that apple you buy from the store, or how much an author makes on each book sold.
  • I see you're swallowing the lies spammed by apple and Google, just like they ordered it. Laws are bad when they affect the greed of the already super rich, right? We should let them keep bending the laws and making you pay more for less, right? Good lemming.
  • WebOS was ahead of its time but palm (and more so HP) killed it before it could gain more traction. 
  • boy, ain't this the truth
  • Yep. If it hadn't died I'd still be using it.
  • True these companies are too large to compete with now. Unfortunately, they received wins in court, particularly over BlackBerry, that allowed them to flourish. Of course, that just means we would be saying the same for BlackBerry now instead.
  • There always have been a duopoly, going back to the Mac vs Windows days. Software development costs a ton and the typical third place vendor gets 3-15% of the market at most so it will always be a much poorer experience. That's why #3 always ends up disappearing if it doesn't find a specific nitche. This article ignores that fact. On top of that, Android is open source, which dramatically opens up user options even if the Google play store and apps are a real advantage. I've used web OS, Windows phone, and Windows mobile -- we definitely got the best case duopoly.
  • The only reason Android is "open source" (disclaimer: except for the money making parts) is because Google can dodge a ton of software licensing that way. That design also means its chronically optimised for planned obsolescence. If you like that, you're not a consumer. Having to celebrate when you're getting a critical software update on a one year old device costing well over a thousand bucks is insanity.
  • I don't care what control they exert over mobile devices....I do object when they screw with political narratives...
  • Life goes on... I like my Pixel, but I will always have a soft spot for my red BlackBerry Passport.
  • Aforementioned app gap is the core issue and it can be solved only through universal web apps. If the future belongs to UWA then we could maybe one day see other operating systems to come out and have some profitable market share. And consumers would have finally have real choices.
  • It's increasingly less about Google and more about Samsung. Everywhere I go, there's a strong prominence, from massive ads to dedicated shops related to Samsung. All the other android device manufacturers simply are not there. The only other company that is fighting it on consumer smartphones is Apple. That is all. Apple vs Samsung. The situation is even worse when you want to know if your Telco provider supports VoLTE or 5G. The main devices supprted are almost always Samsung or Apple. So it's more of a Samsung vs Apple world we're living in.
  • Mate, you know nothing about smartphone sales.
    BBK are number 1 easily. Then Samsung are slightly above Xiaomi. Then Apple behind them.
    There's more to phones than the small USA market.
  • The small USmarket? Dude the US has more than 5 times the population of Great Britain. Even if we give you Canada and Australia we still dwarf you. Canada has less people than the state of California. Most European countries have tiny populations. The entire population of Sweden is only about 25% larger than New York City. Your perceptions are a bit skewed.
  • "Most European countries have tiny populations. The entire population of Sweden is only about 25% larger than New York City." The population of the EU = ~448million (2020), that's not including all of Europe, just the EU.
    The population of the US = ~332million (2021)... This US vs EU dribble that continually crops up, is dumb. Essentially, US/EU need to work together more effectively, along with like-minded Asian societies, or China and its buddies will be eating our lunch ~100yrs from now.
  • I have to disagree with some of your points. For instance, BlackBerry had some really good things but bad luck had very little to do with it's demise. The App Gap, as you call it, was largely their own fault. Even when it was becoming glaringly obvious that the only way they were going to retain the popularity was by improving their app store they were putting insane obstacles in the path of potential developers. Apple at its worst and most restrictive was a walk in the park compared to BB at its best. Microsoft was a similar issue. In their case it was not about artificial barriers to creating apps. But, aside from being late to the game, even when they came to the table, the clearly didn't understand the fundamentals. Aside from some weirdness around app development, there were just some significant failures. What made it worse was the kind of reaction and how they handled upgrades of the OS. Like, when people pointed out that they were lacking some basic features the response was "Well iOS and Android didn't have those features when they launched." Which may have been true but utterly irrelevant. The person looking for a phone is looking at CURRENT phones, not how phone X compares with Phone Y of 3 years prior. There were some other major mis-steps, but this failure to understand the market and defensiveness was at the heart of a lot of it. Both Android and Apple now have what look like overwhelming app store advantages, but that's not the whole story. When Android launched, it looked like it could never catch up to Apple, but at this point, it's not an issue anymore. And BB actually had a head start on Apple and Android in their App store. They totally squandered it! The bottom line is that the duopoly is not invincible. If these guys get lazy or sloppy, someone will step in. Note that Amazon shouldn't have had a problem with the App advantage when they launched their phone, but it was a disastrous failure. On the other hand, they are doing better than almost any other android vendor when it comes to tablets.
  • Look at why Amazon is doing well in tablets. Cost. They are decent devices at dirt cheap prices. That's why Android had a chance against iPhone. There were low cost phones compared to iPhones, so people bought them. Developers naturally made apps for where the users were. Windows phone had some good low cost devices as time went on, but not enough to gather enough market share to get enough developers to embrace yet a third OS.
  • Jerry, stop comparing Google and Apple. It's Android and it's world and Apple. We have choice in phone manufacturers, just not so much in Operating Systems.
    However I lament the passing of WP/W10M. Carrying one of those devices Nd an Android device was cool. Two Android devices, well I don't like it s much.
  • The Windows Phone App gap was one of the three reasons WP sank. The first was timing. WP was famously delayed when they decided to ditch Windows Mobile. That gave Apple and Android a head start in a market that was on fire. The second reason, IMHO, was the cheesy interface that came with WP. The same cheesy interface that came with Windows 8 that everyone hated. Because of that, neither Windows 8 or WP were on my radar. Because of these two items, not enough people came to the platform for developers to bother developing apps.
  • Oh for sure. Windows Phone was awesome, but yeah lack of apps was a problem.
    Now would be a great time for Microsoft to make Windows 11 Phone with Android app support since it works so well on Windows 11.
    I know I'd go back that's for sure.
    There's already people running Windows 11 on Lumia 950 XL, so if they can do it, surely Microsoft could.
  • A universal app store with universal code that ran device agnostic seems like the only way you could offer a third alternative. Hence why Apple is so protective about there only being one app store on their devices.
    There used to be universal app stores. Originally they were called CompUSA, Office Depot, Office Max, Staples, etc. Then it turned into the internet where you could download practically any program on any browser. Once Apple invented the proprietary app store it shifted the market. Imagine if Best Buy was owned by Apple and you were required to buy software only from Best Buy for Apple hardware, and Google owned Staples so Android software was only available from Staples and unofficially from Office Depot. Sounds weird, but that's exactly what we're dealing with in mobile duopoly ecosystems today.
  • Alright, I could have commented days ago but decided not to, I just want to say I really like your articles, Jerry. Looking forward to seeing more!
  • A duopoly is better than the monopoly Windows had in the 90s.
  • And still has today if you are talking 'non'-mobile OSs. There is Windows, MacOS, and Linux essentially. Guess where the market share is. Not sure that's entirely bad either. There is still choice, but not so much that it splits app development.
  • Governments hate it but most users are happy picking iPhone or Android.
  • I think that this duopoly is a result of many factors converging together. For one, probably the biggest factor, consumers, their purchasing habits, wants and needs. To that you add the companies/manufacturers, delayed and faulty products, concepts and projects that didn't pan out, costly mistakes, lack of promotion and marketing combined with lack of interest, half baked operating systems and faulty software. Nevermind a brutal and almost merciless market which oftentimes moves lighting quick, where the margins between success and failure are razor thin. Which also goes for profits. That being said there is a downside to literally being stuck between Apple/iOS and Google/Android. Less competition can foster complacency and become the impetus for less innovation and less funds being allocated to R&D (research and development). Let's be honest, most of the changes in the telecom industry over the past, say, five years or so, have been mostly minimal and mostly cosmetic. There are certainly areas where development is occurring, areas, which if not already, will become primary agents of change. That is of course stuff like wearables, foldables, chip sets and operating/computing capabilities, connectivity like 5G and beyond, WiFi 6 and beyond. Of course there is larger scale stuff like AI, VR, robotics, automation (all of which come with many pluses and minuses). That also doesn't mean that software advances have been completely DOA. Certainly not. I think that there would have been a benefit in terms of choice and innovation (as well as competition) from having a third manufacturer/OS like Microsoft/Windows Mobile or even a fourth one like BlackBerry/BB10. But here we are and the reality is what it is. I don't think anyone has a crystal ball clearly predicting what the future holds. But just think of the changes people experienced in terms of technological advances between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. We may very well be on the precipice of something similar...