Android Open vs. iPhone Closed: Is It Really That Simple?


Mark Sigal at GigaOM wrote a nice article that questions if, essentially, “open” is all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve written about this before, and agree with Sigal’s take. He sums up one aspect of it especially well when he says:

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.

That really helps to explain how things are viewed from the end user perspective. Only the geeks among us tend to consider or wonder how something works, or came to be. The majority of the population just wants something that works, is reliable, is easy to use, and solves a problem.

However, Sigal does not get into it much from a vendor perspective, where the “obstacles” are not usually discussed, especially by iPhone competitors. Rather, most of these vendors simply plug the word “open,” as if just by saying it everything changes for the better. It’s just talk, but action is another thing altogether.

Consider the issues with trying to innovate in the “open” Android space:

  • If you develop a great new feature to distinguish your offerings, guess what? Everybody else gets that code, too. Your distinguishing feature, in fact, cannot be distinguishing after all.
  • Because of the above, I don’t see any radical innovation in the OS. Sure, incremental improvements, but nothing like what the “open” advocates are envisioning. For most vendors, there’s little incentive to develop something for your competitors.
  • That leaves hardware. But here, too, there’s a problem. Develop hardware with a nice feature Android can take advantage of, and then you have to wait for an app to support it. Who knows how long that will be? And your competitors will get it as well.
  • Once the above app is available, consumers will begin to find out that an “Android app” is not quite what it claims to be (i.e., it runs on an “Android phone”). The disparate hardware will mean there will be plenty of apps that won’t run properly on their particular “Android phone.”
  • If Android becomes popular, developers will tend to go with the lowest common denominator hardware so as to reach the widest audience possible.

Compare those last two points to the iPhone universe, where there is little of this from a hardware standpoint. Sure, the two generations of iPhones and iPod touches are not exactly hardware equivalent, but for the most part an “iPhone app” will run on them all. My point is that while some differences in platform generations are unavoidable, Apple can keep those differences fairly minimal — Google cannot.

And for all the criticism of Apple over its blocking of some apps, it strikes me as silly to think Google won’t have to play traffic cop on the Android platform. A more sober assessment of the “open” utopia must still conclude that, for example, wholesale copyright violation is not going to be allowed there, either. Such apps, if they appear, are going to be a problem for Android in general, and Google in particular, since that’s where the OS complaints will be leveled.

What I think we’ll to continue to see are Apple’s competitors screaming the word “open” as if it’s the panacea, and decrying “proprietary” as if it’s the Eighth Deadly Sin. Yet for all that talk we’ll see the “open” platform get little in the way of real innovation — because the dozens of “partners” can’t even agree on where to have lunch, let alone take the platform — and the “closed” platform continue to stay well ahead of the game.

Frankly, “closed” is where all the innovation in the mobile space has taken place (hence everybody trying to copy it at the Mobile World Congress), and I don’t see how 50 vendors looking out for what’s best for them (not their customers) will change that.

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