Openness wins

Android and iPhoneDan Lyons, writing in Newsweek, doesn’t think the introduction of the iPhone on Verizon will stop Android’s momentum:

Apple’s phone would have snuffed out the Android a year ago, but now Google’s device has become an unstoppable juggernaut.

[…] “Android is a global phenomenon,” [Fred Wilson] says. “The big deal is, Android is free software, and handsets that can run it are getting super-cheap. So we are going to see a massive shift from ‘dumb phones’ to ‘smart phones’ around the world this year, and iPhone will not be the big beneficiary of that trend.”

This is exactly the mistake Apple made over twenty years ago, when it let IBM walk all over the personal computer market with its open specification. Sure, the Apple Mac popularized the idea of easy-to-use home computing, but over 90% of the machines actually sitting on peoples’ desks were IBM PC compatible. Worldwide, Mac market share is less than 5%.

I’ve complained about Android in the past, but version 2.2 changed my mind; more recently, Android-only features have been saving my bacon. It’s a great system, and its open structure allows for more innovation both in hardware and software than its competitors. To build an iPhone app, I’d need to pay to join the developer program and buy a Mac. To build an Android app, I can download the SDK and get going – no matter what kind of computer I use. That’s a real difference in attitude, and one that will ultimately see Apple’s phone devices share the fate of their desktop cousins.

Illustration: Android and iPhone by Quinn Dombrowski, released under a Creative Commons license.

3 responses to “Openness wins”

  1. Ben,

    I agree that openness can a strength, but I don’t think Android exhibits the right kind of openness. At present it seems to benefit the carriers (pre-installed unremovable apps) and handset makers (different UI paradigms, control over software upgrades) far more than it benefits end users.

    It’s nice that you can write an app for no outlay, but it’s a jungle out there. There are hundreds of device hardware/software permutations in existence, and it’s only going to get more confusing over time, not least when true Android tablets hit the market. How on earth can you properly test your app for performance and compatibility?

    Not only that, which app store do you submit your app to? There’s the official Google one, then there are carrier-provided stores, the forthcoming Sony (for PS phone) and Amazon stores, and a further eight third-party alternatives (according to Wikipedia at least).

    In response to your analogy, I would suggest reading this piece by Jean-Louis Gassée on why iOS vs Android isn’t like Mac vs IBM-PC here; he also links to a few other articles of interest.

    I would also recommend a few articles by Horace Dediu, whose analysis of the mobile market I have found very thought-provoking over the last year or so.

    Re-framing the dichotomies: Open/Closed vs. Integrated/Fragmented
    How sticky is Android?
    Is Android fragmented by design?
    Law of conservation of modularity

  2. What you say makes sense from a developer’s point of view, but not necessarily a user’s. I’m not sure how representative I am as a user of smartphones, but I have very little interest in acquiring new apps and my main concern is a device which works smoothly and reliably, and whose basic functions – phone, text, email, address book, internet, navigation – are intuitively interlinked and stable. The iphone does that with a minimum of configuration required, as well as being a nice toy to play with – though, crucially, that point comes second. The impression I get of Android is compulsive and ongoing development, and I’m not interested in that if the thing works in the first place – which my iphone 3GS does, very nicely.

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