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Summary:

Open or perish. It’s a meme that’s been embraced as fact ever since Eric Raymond published his seminal essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” If you are not “open,” (i.e., open source or open APIs), you don’t get it, and you’re destined for obsolescence. But while […]

Open or perish. It’s a meme that’s been embraced as fact ever since Eric Raymond published his seminal essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” If you are not “open,” (i.e., open source or open APIs), you don’t get it, and you’re destined for obsolescence. But while there is an appealing logic to this premise, the reality just isn’t that black and white, especially when it comes to the mobile arena.

Consider the different approaches to openness taken by the two companies with (arguably) the greatest product differentiation, most thriving ecosystems and potent cash-flow generation engines in the business: Apple and Google. The former (Apple) is more proprietary, with an integrated approach to hardware, software and service. The latter (Google) is generally perceived to be more open, taking a “loosely coupled” approach to systems and services. Both are breakout businesses, with legions of devoted followers. So which approach is better?

Apple is widely lauded for delivering a superb user experience, offering great synergy and seamless integration across its different product offerings, but it’s also an occasional bully, self-selecting which services and offerings it anoints as value-adds, and which it blocks as deleterious (Flash) or redundant (Podcaster).

Google, by contrast, is pretty prodigious in terms of rolling out a lot of product offerings, and its openness has encouraged the proverbial thousand flowers to bloom (e.g., site-optimized mapping functions have become endemic to many third-party sites, thanks to Google Maps). Critics note, however, that many of Google’s products are uninspired and unfocused from a product lifecycle perspective.

So, let’s look at Apple’s iPhone platform, and compare its prospects to those of Google’s Android.

With the iPhone, Apple has collapsed desktop, mobile, web and media experiences and integrated them across hardware, software and service layers, in the process delivering a great user experience, creating a thriving marketplace (via iTunes and the App Store) and catalyzing a powerful developer ecosystem (more than 20,000 apps and 500 million downloads). Naysayers counter that Apple’s approach is proprietary, and thus, doomed to entropy.

Android, by contrast, is open source, isn’t married to specific hardware or service providers, and addresses the segment of the mobile device builder market not named Apple or BlackBerry maker RIM.

Android enthusiasts tell a story that sounds like the Microsoft vs. Apple PC Wars. A visionary, but proprietary hardware/software vendor starts making money hand over fist when into the void comes a software vendor that works with multiple hardware OEMs (and service providers) and over time becomes ubiquitous, relegating the proprietary vendor to niche status. This time, the story ends with Google triumphantly emerging as the unified stack that ties together mobile, PC and web universes.

There’s one small fly in the ointment, however. While device makers can do pretty much “anything” with an open platform, in order to deliver a superior user experience, Google will either have to take on the burden of supporting “anything” or set limits on what will work on any particular instantiation of the platform.

Of course, setting limits makes Android less open, reducing leverage across the entire ecosystem. It’s a problem for all open source platforms, and as an old embedded systems guy, I can tell you that all the issues are only magnified with mobile devices. Why? Because performance, reliability and user experience really matter with mobile devices, making integration key, which is a conundrum for the open source approach.

The reality is that openness is just an attribute -– it’s not an outcome, and customers buy outcomes. They want the entire solution and they want it to work predictability. Only a tiny minority actually cares about how or why it works. It’s little wonder, then, that the two device families that have won the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of consumers, developers and service providers alike (i.e., BlackBerry and iPhone) are the most deeply integrated from a hardware, software and service layer perspective.

That’s not to say that these challenges aren’t solvable, but it is suggestive that the inevitability of Android is far from a straight line, and that open vs. proprietary is less absolute than the zealots would like to believe.

Mark Sigal is a digital media and Internet platform entrepreneur who has done eight startups, four of them as a co-founder.

  1. Android (at least until now) has pretty much been an ignoble flop in terms of sales (i.e. the G1), so its already a conclusion that being “open” doesn’t guarantee audience interest. It needs big time work before it will really be ready for prime time.

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    1. This is such a great article. I could not agree more with what you have said here. I too have come from a long engineering background and find the Apple platform being closed is more attractive to developers and consumers alike. All of the issues you brought up are spot on and only contribute to the fact that to increase the usability, stability and ultimately user experience of a product it is much easier to worry less about the specific hardware the software is running on.

      You can go further and abstract back to the OS wars. Apple having control of the hardware and its OS allows the user experience to be the same across the board. To me, a consistent user experience is critical to a mobile platform. I agree with Apple’s approach to not allow multi-threading of apps. This would inevitably cause usability issues.

      I was a Windows developer for 18 years and since I now develop on Apple, I must say, the advantages the closed system offers out weighs the openness 10 fold.

      Android will dilute the user experience by having SO many devices and software will have to adapt to these devices etc. Eventually, something like the DROID may get some traction at which point developers will code explicitly for the device. If this happens and explicit development occurs for a particular Android device, you might as well have a closed system like Apple.

      That’s my 2 cents worth.

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      1. @David, thanks for the note, and put a bow around your comment, “Eventually, something like the DROID may get some traction at which point developers will code explicitly for the device. If this happens and explicit development occurs for a particular Android device, you might as well have a closed system like Apple.” My guess is that few people get the ramifications of this one.

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  2. Re: “device makers can do pretty much anything”

    I think it will be in the interest of all vendors using Android, to try to stay mainstream on the stack. That way they benefit from collective development, testing, support & documentation. It also ensures that all Android apps run on all Android devices.

    Where vendors may diverge is at the UI level…to differentiate their products. In some cases, it may not even be obvious that Android is running underneath.

    If what I said is true, then the stack will be the responsibility of the OHA members (including Google) while the UI customizations will be the responsibility of the vendor making them.

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  3. Clearly and well stated. This isn’t too different from all of the hullabaloo over DRM. Truth is most people don’t care, just a loud, vocal minority who, being a very web integrated group, are disproportionately represented in the comments blocks on websites where such issues are covered.

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  4. I think that “openness” (and I use quotes here intentionally because there are so many definitions of what that is, exactly) is just one tactic that technology providers can use. It’s important to understand that “open” is not an end but a means to an end. For most businesses, the objective is disruption.

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  5. > Android (at least until now) has pretty much been an ignoble flop in terms of sales (i.e. the G1)

    And the Mac was an equally “‘ignoble flop” at a time when the only available Mac was the 128K ‘toaster’ in 1984. *Way* too early to call winners and losers.

    Android’s strength, in my opinion, will become visible when it starts to branch out beyond phones: we should be seeing Android-based netbooks by year end, and there’s no reason it couldn’t run on full-power notebooks or even desktops eventually.

    Anyway, this article generally suffers from the Highlander Fallacy: the belief that in the end, there can be only one. In practice some people will prefer closed, some will prefer open, and different providers will serve each group.

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    1. Ezequiel Santamaria Monday, January 4, 2010

      “Android’s strength, in my opinion, will become visible when it starts to branch out beyond phones: we should be seeing Android-based netbooks by year end, and there’s no reason it couldn’t run on full-power notebooks or even desktops eventually”

      Nothing Apple hasn’t done already… just so you know, the iPhone is a Mac OS X mobile version….
      Apple is one step ahead in that matter.
      I agree with your second statement, there can obviously be many players, the idea here is which one will have the biggest market share.
      The answer so far, is obvious, not Android anytime soon.
      RIM and Apple are at the top, and Apple’s market is growing while RIM has become stable.

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  6. “Where vendors may diverge is at the UI level…to differentiate their products. ”

    The problem is if the vendor UIs diverge too much, the application market will become fragmented. Windows not only provided a common hardware interface, it provided a common user interface for all PC applications.

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    1. So? It’s just the UI that would be fragmented, not available apps or other customizations. Look at the HTC Hero for example.

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  7. You really have to take into account how much work was put into the iPhones OS before release and how much work was put into Android before release (along with the fact that it uses components of the already polished Mac OS X).

    Android is technically a rushed product.

    It has nothing to do with being Open or not, it’s just how much time was put into each product.

    At some point, Android may catch up to the iPhone or even surpass it (in some ways it already has).

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    1. I am inclined to agree with this. Just a cursory glance at the Issues list shows where the prorities of people are. There’s a very loud minority screaming for FLAC support. FLAC. Something that is a definite minority when it comes to audio formats. But getting FLAC on Android is one of the highest voted issues right now. The completely broken and almust unusable email client? Farther on down the list.
      It’s all too common in the OSS world – functionality is far less important than whiz-bang-flash stuff.

      I can’t pick what IMAP folders I want to use for what (Like I need my phone creating its own Sent folder!) but soon I’ll be able to listen to FLAC on my phone. :|

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      1. [quote]functionality is far less important than whiz-bang-flash stuff.[/quote]
        Funny — that’s what free software people keep saying about the closed world.

        Anyway, I think one of the reason why FLAC not being support is a big thing to people with android is that it’s expected to be there — after all Android is running a Linux stack where FLAC support is pratically always a given.

        I suspect the issues with email not being high on the list has to do with people having android phones properly don’t use their phones for email all that much. Besides, it’s pratically a given that the issue will be fixed — it’s too important not to.

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  8. “…in order to deliver a superior user experience, Google will either have to take on the burden of supporting “anything” or set limits on what will work on any particular instantiation of the platform.”

    As the Brits like to say, bollocks.

    First, “superior user experience” is in the eye of the beholder. I have had two iPods, including an iPod Touch, and I dumped both of them. In particular, for me, the iPod Nano’s user experience was dreadful. Clearly, there are any number of people who think the iPod line is the epitome of user experience…and for them, it probably is. For others, like myself, it is not. To assume there is a single definition of “superior user experience” flies in the face of reality.

    Second, Google itself does not necessarily have to lift a finger to deliver a “superior user experience”. Case in point: TiVo. Some people think the TiVo’s user experience is “superior”, while others do not. However, there is little question that Linus Torvalds and Linux did not “have to take on the burden of supporting “anything” or set limits on what will work on any particular instantiation of the platform” for TiVo to create its user experience. Android is not significantly different. Some device makers will create a platform that uses Android as a foundation but delivers their own flavor of “superior user experience” (a la Sonar, http://www.engadget.com/2009/02/19/sonar-hopes-to-power-social-featurephones-we-get-a-demo-2/). Some device makers will ship vanilla Android for people whose idea of a “superior user experience” involves their own level of customization. Other device makers may take yet other approaches.

    In fact, it is only through having an open platform that Android will be able to meet the varied definitions of “superior user experience”, because it will take more than one firm (Google) to implement those definitions.

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    1. I agree. Each person’s user experience differs. I have seen many iPod user not happy with the user experience.

      In 1999 -2002 Apple had iLife suite. ( iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband.) Those days mp3 was on the computers with iTunes or quicktime on Mac and WMplayer or Winamp on windows. Thought there where thousands of mp3 player non of them were good in easily handling 100 or more song.

      I used to take my laptop where ever i go to play music. Sometimes thumb drives. Now in 2001 Apple introduced iPod. Its meant to sync all my music of my laptop (i.e iTunes). So, virtually all my iBook music is with me in the form of iPod (with same playlist and songs i organized on my itunes).

      Later version allowed me to sync contacts, Photos from iPhoto, Home made movies by iMovies, my calender etc.
      Now Apple has wireless devices like Apple TV, iPhone and me.com . I have to just say sync. Nothing more.

      This is one of the best experience i have found on any computer platform. Its the approach many people fail understand.
      Once the library iPhoto, iTunes, is build and synced. Its there with just few clicks away.

      So, iPod can be best used if you have a organized iTunes , iPhoto libraries and contact, calender works on iPhone, iPod which is great.

      Bottom Line>>>>> Common data is Music, Photos, Videos, Contacts, Calender and more

      While on the move. My iPhone lets me access the common data. During jogs my iPod let’s me access the common data, While watching Apple TV lets it lets me access the common data and while i’m a Mac its the Common data and even if i’m abroad still i have access to my common data with me.com

      So, Virtually i can carry any device and not stuck to just laptop. Imagine this the way Apple works from 2000.

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      1. you hit the nail on the head…..all of your personal information (music, photos, contacts, calendar, videos, etc) sits in one place and can be synced easily to many devices from anywhere you might be. Nothing can be more convenient and simplistic than that, and only someone who’s experienced that convenience and simplicity can appreciate Apple’s approach to a closed system. Great comment rmbig.
        I guarantee if anyone commenting on this board used all of Apple’s products (music, photo, video, contacts, calendar and apple tv) for a few months, they would finally understand the benefits of what Apple is doing to make getting your “common data” easily accessible from anywhere. Unfortunately, unless you’ve experienced it, you can never quite understand or appreciate it……….This comment is coming from someone who got frustrated with the constant bugs of a Windows Environment (freezing, resetting, viruses, help desk calls at 10 oclock at night) and was willing to try an easier way (though more expensive) to streamline everything easily…happy holidays to all

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  9. Gotta agree with kevin. Looking at expanding into the mobile space, there’s so much that’s appealing in Apple’s end-to-end approach and only 1 physical device format. How do you develop for Android if the platform specs change? It’s the browser wars all over again. Yes, it’s a surmountable problem, but it’s taken years to work out of the chaos that created, and that just gives Apple more time to solidify its position.

    Apple really has created a great little mobile space that’s super developer-friendly (i’m judging only by # of apps created by indies), and via iTunes has created a viable revenue-generating marketplace. Most of that credit has to go to the relatively simplicity that comes with developing and supporting a single device, IMO.

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  10. @kevin

    In the first part I stated that the stack should remain intact, so applications launch & run properly on all Android devices (i.e. to avoid application fragmentation).

    The UI changes I am talking about are the layout of the screen, the organization of the app launchers, whether hardware buttons or GUI buttons are used, colors, graphics, etc.

    Touch Revolution is one company using Android for home appliances. At CES, they demonstrated some totally different screen interfaces for Android.

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