PARIS--In the fight between the two smartphone heavyweights, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was blunt today about who he thinks is winning.
"Android is ahead of the iPhone now," Schmidt declared to an audience of techies and aspiring entrepreneurs at the LeWeb conference here.
He made his statement to a room bursting at the seams with iPhones, iPads, and Macs, and the audience met his words with a moment of silence that implied some skepticism. So Schmidt elaborated on how he was measuring: "unit volume, Ice Cream Sandwich, the price is lower, there are more vendors."
Android is indeed a success in the market. But one big weakness compared with iOS was very visible at the conference: becoming the top priority for programmers. Note-taking specialist Evernote today announced a new app called Hello for keeping track of people--for iPhone only so far. And when news reader Flipboard announced its expansion from the iPad to the iPhone, Chief Executive Mike McCue refused to even say whether the company was working on an Android version.
"We've been focused on iPhone," McCue said. And about Android, he said only, "We'll see."
Schmidt thinks the high volume of Android phone shipments will win out, though, aided by the release of Ice Cream Sandwich, aka Android 4.0.
"Ultimately, application vendors are driven by volume, and volume is favored by the open approach Google is taking," Schmidt said. "There are so many manufacturers working so hard to distribute Android phones globally that whether you like ICS or not--and again I like it a great deal--you will want to develop for that platform, and perhaps even first."
One Android-toting audience member said he was frustrated to see iOS apps beating Android versions to market. But in part because of Ice Cream Sandwich, "my prediction is that six months from now you'll say the opposite," Schmidt said.
About 200 million Android phones have gone into use so far, with 550,000 new ones being activated daily, Schmidt said.
One of the recurring Android criticisms is the idea that it's an iOS knockoff--an idea that incensed late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Schmidt wouldn't comment on whether Android copied iOS features, but he did offer his stock refrain about the issue: "Android was founded before the iPhone was."
Success in Android is central to Google's plans. Although it gives the operating system away for free, it serves as a mechanism for the company to get its services into peoples' hands in the hot mobile-technology realm. Those services include not just search, but also Gmail, Google Apps, Google+ Google Music, and Google Maps.
"All the interesting new applications are going to be some combination of social, mobile, and local," Schmidt said. And it's not a fad, he said: "Social, local, mobile has been true for humans for at least 10,000 years, so I don't think it's going to go away any time soon."
Ice Cream Sandwich will help Google, in part because it's got deeply integrated features for sharing many services.
"We started off thinking phones were computers. We forgot that they were about communication," Schmidt said.
Ice Cream Sandwich has just started shipping on Samsung's Galaxy Nexus phone, which is not yet available in the United States and many other parts of the world.
Updated 7:21 a.m. PT, 7:50 a.m. PT, and 8:30 a.m. PT with further details and clarification on a Schmidt quotation regarding Android versions of apps.
Correction at 5:09 a.m. PT December 8 to expand Schmidt's quote about app development. Here is the expanded quote: "Ultimately, application vendors are driven by volume, and volume is favored by the open approach Google is taking. There are so many manufacturers working so hard to distribute Android phones globally that whether you like ICS or not--and again I like it a great deal--you will want to develop for that platform, and perhaps even first." Tip of the hat to Julian Yap for spotting the error..