Android vs. iPhone: Why Openness May Not Be Best

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 (s AAPL) and Google (s GOOG). 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 (s rimm).

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.