Apple has spent more than a decade leaching its hip little tech toys into American homes and pop culture with very little pushback from the stodgy tech sector. Time's up.
A month after releasing its iPhone 5 and about a week away from debuting its iPad Mini and newest 13-inch MacBook Pro, Apple finds itself in a peculiar position. Revenue jumped 23% last quarter from the same period a year ago and the company's next year-end summary follows up a 66% annual revenue spike in its 2011 report.
As ubiquitous as the company seems, though, it's still not as big a force as it could be. Its 17% market share among mobile phones in the U.S. still trails Samsung (25.7%) and LG (18.2%), according to market research firm ComScore.
Meanwhile, its iOS platform's 34.3% share of the U.S. smartphone market still trails Google Android's growing 52.6% stake.
That disparity is far more pronounced globally, where research firm Gartner says Nokia and Samsung's 41% mobile market share dwarfs Apple's 5%. Among global smartphone users, Apple fares somewhat better, with a 24% share of the market that's still been surpassed by Android's 50% dominance.
Among computer operating systems, Mac and iOS are still small players. According to Web metrics firm Net Applications, Microsoft Windows is the operating system of choice on 84% of all personal computers in the world. Mac operating systems are just 6.30%, or little more that Windows Vista's 6.15%.
So if Apple isn't meeting the monstrous potential its market cap and share price indicates, why is it so hard to find an Apple product that doesn't top a wish list of tech toys? The competition simply wasn't playing Apple's game ... until recently. While Apple products still hover near the top of critics lists, we and the folks at Decide.com found examples of products that either give Apple's playthings a good fight or bite into Apple's market by beating it at their own game.
These picks are going to require a few hours of comments field fury:
Apple contender: iPhone 5
Alternative: Samsung Galaxy S III 4G
How seriously are Samsung's Galaxy products threatening Apple's dominance? So seriously that Apple and Samsung remain embroiled in litigation over whether Samsung infringed on Apple iPhone and iPad patents to make its Galaxy smartphones and Nexus tablets.
Sales of both Samsung products were banned in the U.S. for a bit, but now the Galaxy S III is available to AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and even iPhone-deprived T-Mobile customers for as much as $150 less than the iPhone. The phone's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, 4G LTE capability and quick dual-core processor are lovely, but the Galaxy SI's strong 8-megapixel camera and S Beam technology that allows users to move photos, videos, documents and other files between phones by tapping their backs together are its biggest advantages. Those earned it the same 94 out of 100 that Decide.com gave the iPhone 5.
While its S Voice is a pale replica of the iPhone's Siri and drains an already weak battery, the Galaxy S III is already beating the iPhone in an area where Apple was once thought invincible: apps. Say what you will about Google Play's selection compared with the App Store, but Google execs never had to offer an embarrassed apology for the quality of Google Maps.
(See also: Is the iPad too heavy?)
Apple contender: iPod Touch
Alternative: Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2
Apple's played this game with users for years, so why shouldn't Samsung?
You take all of the elements people really like about your popular smartphone, yank out the phone element for folks who don't want to pay for airtime or parents who don't want the cost of their kid's toy added to their monthly phone bill and watch the money trickle in.
This was the exact thinking behind the Galaxy Player, a 4-inch handheld that blazes past the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet with its front and rear cameras, GPS, Bluetooth and support for Google's suite of official mobile apps, including Gmail, Google Talk and the Android Market. The iPod Touch clearly has the better camera of the two and a smoother display, but the Galaxy supports more video formats, high-quality YouTube and Netflix streaming, better sound quality for audio files with Samsung's SoundAlive audio enhancement settings and an FM tuner for old folks who still care to listen to the radio.
The latest Galaxy Player is competing with an Apple afterthought in a dying electronics segment, but Samsung's still taking the time to get it right. While not as impressive as the Galaxy S III, the Galaxy Player earned the same 90 rating from Decide as the latest iPod while selling for less. If price is the deciding factor, the Galaxy Player wins the day easily.
Apple contender: iPad 2
Alternative: Google Nexus 7
It's not often that the competition makes Apple move first, but how else do you explain the Nexus 7 beating the iPad Mini to the market by about six months?
The Nexus 7 is a whole lot smaller than the iPad 2 at 7 inches and comes in at about half the price of its big competitor. Starting at $200, it's also less than half the price. It has a fantastic HD display that lends itself well to games and movies thanks to a quad-core Tegra 3 processor delivers fast performance and a beautiful and responsive screen.
It's been getting some early competition from the $160 Amazon Kindle Fire HD, but the Amazon mini tablet gives buyers a bit more size and bulk than the Nexus 7. Google's also given its tablet a fighting chance by adding TV shows and buyable movies, welcoming Google Play to compete with Amazon Prime and iTunes offerings.
Right now the little tablet is the winner by default, but even if Apple gives the iPad mini the built-in expandable storage and back camera the Nexus 7 lacks, that lightweight design and low price are going to be tough to beat.
Apple contender: MacBook Pro
Alternative: Lenovo ThinkPad
Apple is supposedly tacking the introduction of its 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display onto the end of its iPad Mini presentation, which tells you about as much as you need to know about where the company thinks Macs fit in these days.
If iPads are doubling the sales and revenue of Mac laptops and Apple is pouring much of its efforts into its tablets and smartphones, what's the point of paying a premium for a Mac if its security is no longer uncrackable and integration is its only draw? Dell and HP may be hurting, but Lenovo just signed a sponsorship and supply deal with the NFL and wants folks to take a chance on its Windows-based laptops.
Decide loved the company's older 11.6-inch models and rated them second only to MacBook products among laptops. Its nearly 16-inch models are monsters by today's 13-to-15-inch standards, but Decide's given them an 88 out of 100.
The business community gives a whole lot of love to Lenovo models such as the X1 Carbon and X230 ultrabooks for their rugged style, keyboard setups that put the MacBook Air to shame and the familiar trackpad and trackpoint bump that the folks in blue shirts love so well. Their goal was to slim down, compete with new MacBooks on price and give their users a familiar experience the Macs still can't match. While the ThinkPads may win the race with MacBooks to laptop extinction, they're pulling in as many mourners as possible along the way.
Apple contender: iMac
Alternative: HP Pavilion Phoenix Desktop
Yet another category that tech companies seem to care about less and less.
iMac sales make up roughly a fifth of all Mac sales and were down almost 20% in the third quarter from the same time last year. In all of 2011, iMac desktop sales grew just 1% from 2010. The decline is speeding up and the sector is dying.
Still, there are offices that need workstations and desk space that needs filling. Decide gives a slight edge to the 27-inch iMacs and their all-in-one screen design, but is similarly taken with HP Pavilion Phoenix towers that come in at roughly half the price but offer 10 gigabytes of memory and a two-terabyte hard drive.
For gamers, that means no lag, great graphics and ridiculous sound from Beats Audio. For business folks, that means a smooth transition to Windows 8. For the average joe, it means having to find a monitor instead of having a nice, compact, minimally fanned all-in-one, but it also means having more speed and storage than you could ever hope to use.
Apple contender: Apple TV
Alternative: Roku 2 HD
Apple TV is great for Apple fans who want to integrate all their media and have access to all their iTunes files via their living room or use their Apple mobile device as a remote. Beyond that the perks stop at Netflix, Hulu, Major League MLB.tv, NBA League Pass, Vimeo, YouTube and Flickr and NHL Game Center.
That's wonderful and all, but if you're less keen on mirroring your Mac screen on your television and more concerned with cutting the cable cord, the similarly priced Roku 2 HD holds far more value.
For one, it gives Amazon Prime customers access to their Amazon Instant Video shows and movies and gives Wal-Mart's Vudu customers a link to their television and film content. It also pipes in music from Pandora and Rdio, content from Crackle, NBC News, Crackle, Disney.com, and CBSSports.com and gives viewers their pick of video games.
If you're looking to link up Apple devices, there's really no other streaming box choice. If you care more about the content than making all your toys communicate, though, the Roku 2 is really worth considering.