Benedict Evans once talked about a sort of “openness Tourette’s Syndrome” that occurs whenever people discuss Apple’s platforms vs. competitors. Basically, it goes like this: someone mentions how good an Apple platform is, and then someone else says, “Yeah, but Android is open.”
There’s a pleasant sort of fiction that is promised with “open” that simply isn’t a viable reality for most people. I’ve heard salespeople use this in retail stores, and I’ve heard IT professionals use this when offering Android to their clients. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what Android’s various meanings of “open” are. The type of “open” that people are typically referring to when they use that word is actually conflated with “extensible” or perhaps “has relaxed security”, which are very different things than the “open” that Android was conceived with.
Android’s initial form as a project was open-source, and the Android of today is still technically “open-source” but, due to its reliance on Google’s services and cloud features, the current version of Android that comes loaded on many phones is not nearly as “open” as many would have you believe. Would you like to use another mapping service? How about something other than Google Now? Can you use the features of the home screen without being tied to Google services? Sadly, no.
That doesn’t mean that one couldn’t install the Android Open-Source Project’s fork of the operating system, but it means that the marquee features of the operating system, the things that Google and Android fans like to wave in the air, are inherently tied to Google and make it very difficult to use non-Google-developed operating systems.
Instead of this word “open”, then, let’s use the word “extensible”, since that more accurately reflects the Android OS’s ability to facilitate communication between apps, and to allow developers to build software that adds functionality to the OS or preexisting apps.
The problem with Android up to this point has been that security has not been (or at least hasn’t appeared to have been) a priority for developers or users. While I could try to offer up what I see as reasons for this type of behavior (laziness, “Accept” fatigue). I may be wrong on this, but from what I’ve seen, Android are more than willing to download apps and grant them almost completely exclusive access to their mobile device without really thinking through the ramifications.
Apple has avoided this for many years by sandboxing their apps and keeping inter-app communication on the back burner until they developed a way to allow apps to communicate effectively without sacrificing a user’s privacy or requiring them to grant unnecessary privileges to an app that really shouldn’t require it. Naturally, this came at a cost. For years, iOS users have not been able to install 3rd-party keyboards or send information between apps in a way that was “easy” (to be fair, the iOS “Open In…” functionality has allowed users to send documents and files between applications for some time, but required a degree of savviness from users that was sometimes lacking).
Now that Apple has introduced the ability for developers to create “Extensions”, however, that gap has very quickly been bridged, and iOS 8 will allow developers to create new ways for their apps to interact. Some may argue that Apple’s approach may differ from Google’s, but the end-user result is basically the same: a person will be allowed to install and use third party keyboards, send information between apps, and interact more directly with the data in other apps.
What I’m interested in seeing now, however, is what the conversation will center around now. For many years, Android users have told me that Android has been superior because of its customizability. When I would press these users to provide me with more information about what “customizability” means, they would often say two things: support for third party keyboards and home screen widgets.
These two “features” of the operating system, in my opinion, are not very important, and would often open a user’s device up to instability and/or unnecessary resource usage. I have used Android devices, and I have seen the home screen widgets for the apps that I use the most, and there is no version of reality in which the widgets provide a superior experience to using the app. Again, this is my experience, and maybe there are some people who really enjoy looking at two lines of their mail on their home screen underneath a line and a half of their upcoming calendar events, and not really being able to meaningfully interact with either until they open the app anyway.
Third party keyboard support has also perplexed me, but I can understand the utility for people living outside the United States, for whom third party keyboards can offer substantially improved text entry. That being said, none of the Android users that I discussed this with lived outside the United States, so it seems that their argument is a moot point, or at least purely subjective.
Thus, it seems to me that the discussion of Android as an “open” system (again, in the way that most people understand the term “open”) has lost much of its value. Android as an “extensible” operating system has also lost much of its value, as well (at least as a marketing ploy) in light of the new functionality of iOS 8. How, then, should we be defining “open”?
When we look on the post-PC landscape and see two operating systems that allow their users to interact with their data similarly, and enter information into their devices similarly, and allow applications built upon their platforms to communicate similarly, how should a person decide which device to use? Perhaps the discussion shouldn’t be centered around questions like “Which device lets me tinker with system files?” or “Which device will allow me to inadvertently break things if I wanted to?”, but should really be “Which device is better for humans?”
Mobile is the future. No one doubts that, and those that do are clearly riding their tiny rafts toward the inevitable plummet off the edge of the waterfall.
What is interesting is how these different mobile OS choices are defined (e.g. available apps, number of users, types of users, user engagement, developers, just to name a few), and what those definitions mean for the larger mobile landscape.
Many people argue for the benefits of iOS over Android, and vice versa, and I think the choice that most people make to go with one operating system or another isn’t driven by some core ethos or belief in how a mobile operating system should behave, it’s driven by far simpler forces – popular culture, how much money is in their wallet, and what feels right.
When it comes to the tablet space, iOS is the clear winner, having scooped up both the lion’s share of the market as well as customer satisfaction. I find it somewhat painful to watch owners of most other tablet devices struggle with basic functionality; I’m left with the feeling that someone, somewhere has done them a disservice by recommending something that did not fit their needs, having pushed some other device into their hands instead.
Where things start to blur, however, is when people start looking to devices outside of the mobile device market, things like connected TVs, appliances, and other gadgets. A person who isn’t fond of Apple can, ostensibly, purchase a Roku box for streaming content to their TV, but how well does that really integrate with a person’s home theater setup if they have iOS devices? How about Android? What about Linux? The trick here is that there are some devices that work well together, and some that don’t. Did you happen to buy one of those early Google TVs? How’s that working out for you? Sorry there aren’t more of them out there, turns out people didn’t like them very much. Sad.
The Apple TV is an iOS device, however, and I think it fills a key role in Apple’s connected living room idea. I’ve talked about this in past posts, as well, but something that many people don’t take into account is the fact that the Apple TV runs iOS, but in a form that isn’t immediately recognizable to most people.
Apple has created a chain of interconnected devices which, on their own, may seem unremarkable. Start linking them together, however, and they become far stronger and more capable than they were on their own.
I’ll end with a little story. I spent a half on the phone with a man recently, trying to help him compose and reply to an email on his new Android phone. I felt sorry for him. He had never owned a smartphone before, and was having a very difficult time using the device. For whatever reason, data was not enabled on his phone and he had to find the setting to turn it on before he could actually send the email. He was very frustrated, and it was clear that he wasn’t feeling confident. He was told that this device was very “user friendly” and that it “just worked”, but his experience demonstrated otherwise. That same night, I had some friends over, many of whom are involved in some sort of music production or performance, or who simply have great taste in music. They were sharing their favorite tracks and videos on my TV, all from their phones, all without having to fiddle with a remote or web browser. They were laughing and talking, all able to discuss and converse without needing to configure anything. They just tapped the AirPlay button and sent the media to the Apple TV. Zero configuration, zero setup.
From where I was sitting, it looked like magic.
This won’t work. I’m not saying that it never will, but I don’t believe that this is something that Apple’s framework actually even allows; Apple doesn’t allow this by design. The whole idea of a phone that does the “bidding” of another company, or simply becomes a platform for another company’s ideas, values, and way of thinking is absurd. Google might allow it because they’d find a way to monetize it, but can you imagine that? I mean actually take a minute to imagine a Google Ads-ridden Facebook interface shoehorned onto an Android phone running some forked version of the OS. Jesus, it hurts to even think about. What a horrible, mind-destroying user experience that would be.
I’ve been trying to digest the Apple news over the past few days in a way that would be meaningful, and it’s been difficult. Amidst all of the noise regarding unrevealed iOS 5 features, unrevealed Lion features, unicorns flying and granting wishes, and the future of all three, I was able to come up with a coherent thought that I think captures what I actually think about the future of mobile.
When Apple started getting serious about iOS, Google also started getting really serious about Android, and the divide that grew between the two has been significant. A lot of people get Android phones now because they’re “just like iPhones”, until they realize that their Android-powered device can’t do X (very rarely do I ever run into a situation that’s the other way around), or needs 20 steps to do Y. A few people get Android-powered phones because they want to do things that they “can’t” do with an iPhone. There will always be things that Android devices will be able to that iOS devices won’t be able to do and vice versa, but that’s not the key metric here. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not those things actually make sense and are “doable” by the majority of users. In my opinion, they’re not. Most people don’t have the ability to or desire to root their phones, don’t want to dig into firmware files, don’t want to jailbreak their devices, don’t want to do all the stuff that the advanced users (who tend to be the most vocal) use as ammunition against the competing platform. In the end, most users want to pick up the phone, send a few texts, make a few calls, hop on Facebook, and have fun doing that. Oh and play games. That tends to be about it. Does this make me upset? Yes, sure. I tend to use my stuff a little more, but hey, not my phone.
As mentioned in the past, Apple is doing some neat stuff with their product reveals as of late. Apple is telling people how they work. This is important because yeah, it’s about the user experience (UX), but the reason you’ve got such a killer experience is because of all this hardware underneath, because of this glass, because of this epic battery. Apple is communicating that there’s a lot that goes into the design and production of each device, and that should make you feel good. You should look at all this stuff and feel like they made it for you, to fit your lifestyle, your aesthetics, your pocketbook.
So, that brings us to now. Apple unveils all these new things that are a part of its new iOS, and some people1 looked at all that and had a very meh response, saying that this release was more of a parity release, that it wasn’t really breaking any new ground. I continued to look at this iOS release, however, and I think I figured out why I feel so excited about it. Whenever Apple has released a new product or new version of their OS, Android users have always held it over Apple users’ heads that they’ve been able to do this for months or years or millennia or whatever. Now, they can’t do that. Now, a person deciding between iOS and Android is going to have to choose between The Real Thing and a knockoff. This is where we’re at, folks.
People used to walk into a store and have the sales associate give them a weighted assessment of iOS vs. Android which probably included that ridiculous “open” buzzword in there somewhere. What does “open” mean for the end user?2 I’ll let that one percolate for a bit.
Ultimately, “open” is just a word, a marketing tactic that has no meaning for the customer, for the actual user of the product. “Open” is only meaningful to the developer (and marginally, at that). For the customer, it’s meaningless, but it sounds good, like you’re sticking it to the man or something. For the baby boomer generation, this is great because they used to stick it to the man, and maybe it makes them feel good. But let’s extrapolate that out a little bit. Let’s say a person hears “open” and buys the Android phone because they think it farts rainbows or something. Now they think that everything they do is better, the perceived benefits of using an “open” phone start to shine through. Until they see something running iOS. All of the things they thought were so great are also clearly on iOS, but look better, respond better, feel better. Where’s “open” now? Where’s Android now? It’s just another cheap imitator.
A new iPad owner will be able to pop the top on their new iPad and start using it right away as his or her primary computer. There will be little to no configuration, and all iOS devices will be kept in sync. Apps will use iCloud, people will love the experience, and the whole thing will grow its own. The Apple club is getting bigger, and the cost of entry is dropping like a rock. As highlighted by other writers, Apple is re-stating its devotion to being a hardware company, a mobile devices company, not a software company. Sure, Apple writes software, but only because its software sings on its devices.
For any other company, a software release that brings in features that others have had as “standard” for a little while would be “just” playing catch-up; for Apple, which designs software that is already powerful to the nth degree, “catching up” means creating almost unstoppable inertia.
1 I’m counting myself among those people.
2 I’ve been in carrier stores before, and listening to these floor guys try to explain it to the customer is hilarious. Listen in sometime and you’ll see what I mean.
One of the most powerful developments in recent years has been the creation of “cloud computing.” Folks familiar with the technology know that it’s essentially doing for your computer what email services like Gmail and Yahoo! have done for your communication–they’ve taken your messages, contacts, and other personal information and stored it on secure servers across the nation to make it easily retrievable in the case of an emergency or hardware failure. Instead of relying on a single storage point (your home PC, for example) to store all of your communication, Google, Yahoo, and dozens of other websites offer to handle of those tasks in exchange for showing you advertising or using some non-identifiable information to craft better algorithms.
For most people, the immediate benefit of these systems was apparent. Access your mail anywhere, store contacts somewhere that won’t be affected in the case of a system crash or loss of a single device (like a phone), and integrate these services with your web browsing. Easy, and powerful. The systems that provided these services long ago have evolved significantly, now allowing entire operating systems to essentially run through your broadband connection, piping only the data necessary for input and allowing massive supercomputers to handle all of the processing.
That all sounds fine and good, but what does it mean for you?
Cloud computing, so named because of its pseudo-omnipresence, changes the role of computers significantly. They no longer exist as a single point of storage for all your information. Instead, the computer is more of a gateway, a portal to your data that is stored in massive servers. One analogy I can draw is that of a dry cleaner. With the old model of computing, it was as though you were standing at the front of a dry cleaning factory trying to look for a specific shirt. You might not even know where the shirt was located, but you’d still have to find it yourself. With the advent of search, that process was trimmed a bit- you tell someone else what to look for and where to look, and they find the shirt.
Now, with cloud computing, we see that yet another layer of interaction is slowly melting away. We’re doing away with the fetching entirely. You don’t even really need to know where you’ve stored your data, you just need to run a search, and you can pull down results from the stuff you have stored locally on your computer as well as the files floating up with the sun and moon. We are no longer limited by how much space is on our devices, how much storage we can buy. The only limiting factor is the infrastructure that connects all these devices together. Some people have asked me, almost accusingly, “Well what happens if the network goes down? What then, huh?”
If the entire United States suddenly experiences a simultaneous and catastrophic shutdown of all of its network infrastructure, we will have much bigger things to worry about than listening to our music or accessing the documents on our cloud folder. That’s akin to asking what would happen if all paper in the United States suddenly caught fire. I don’t want to hypothesize about the events or circumstances that would need to exist in order to facilitate such a terrible reality, but, assuming it was both spontaneous and total, I doubt anyone would be worried about their fourth grade diary.
In recent news, we’ve heard rumblings of Apple’s new iOS 5 being cloud-based, a total overhaul of the OS. I can’t even begin to fathom what that means. The OS seems just fine as it is, but the cloud is where it’s at these days, and that darn data center that’s been occupying so many of my thoughts and predictions seems like the perfect use of all those massive petaflops (or whatever they use to measure data centers of that magnitude). It all seems to be coming together now.
What we will start to see is more unity across Apple’s various OS products. Remember back in 2005, when Steve was asked what kind of OS the iPhone was running? Does anyone remember his response? Let’s recap, shall we?
Jobs admitted that Apple is a new player in the cell phone business, saying “We’re newcomers. People have forgotten more than we know about this.” Jobs noted that the operating system to run the iPhone — Mac OS X itself — has been in develop for more than a decade (its roots like in NeXT’s Nextstep operating system). Mossberg suggested that the iPhone doesn’t have the entire operating system on it, but Jobs protested.
“Yes it does. The entire OS is gigabytes, but it’s data. We don’t need desktop patterns, sound files. If you take out the data, the OS isn’t that huge. It’s got real OS X, real Safari, real desktop e-mail. And we can take Safari and put a different user interface on it, to work with the multitouch screen. And if you don’t own a browser, you can’t do that,” said Jobs.
This shift is not overnight, and it is not a new direction for Mac OS. Once Apple began work on the iPad, they started planning for this shift, possibly even before that. I seem to remember some folks discussing the origins of the iPhone, how it was actually rooted in an experimental side project that Steve Jobs somehow got a look at and recognized as brilliant, and that said side project was actually more akin to the iPad than the iPhone. At any rate, it looks to me as though Apple has been planning this shift for years, possibly even the better part of a decade. I believe that Apple designed iOS with unification in mind all along, seeing a desire to create a powerful OS for new mobile devices that hadn’t even been developed yet. It seems fairly obvious when you look at their last “Back to the Mac” event, and even more glaringly obvious when you see something like this coming out of Gizmodo.
Adobe demonstrated Photoshop for iPad yesterday. Not a sub-product like Photoshop Express, but the real Photoshop, with a new skin. Sure, it doesn’t have some of the advanced print and web publishing oriented features of the desktop behemoth. But it has everything you need, from layers compositing—including a 3D mode to show people how they work—to what appeared to be non-destructive adjust layers, levels, color controls, and all the features I use every day in the desktop Photoshop. From the little we have seen, the application was fast and smooth.
I believe Apple has succeeded in ushering in a new age already; I can’t wait to see them throw the doors wide open to a future we’ve only dreamed of.
First off, don’t ever use WordPress for iOS. I just lost 1,000 words of article I was writing because WordPress decided it was going to just delete the whole thing instead of actually saving it like it usually does. No big deal, right? Just a half dozen hours of research and writing. Hey WordPress, give me three hours of my life back and we’ll call it even.
Here’s what I was going to say, in a nutshell.
Google is one of the most hypocritical companies ever. My disdain for their Android operating system and what it has potentially done to the mobile landscape is now amplified by the fact that I have to write this all over again.
The FCC ruled against net neutrality for wireless carriers in part because Android is open. Don’t get me started on how that doesn’t make sense. I’d make Andrew Jackson look tame.
Now there’s this. After all of the ads, propaganda, superbowl commercials, lobbying, and lies, Google is holding their Android OS back from release to work on the user experience. To most people, this won’t matter, but this is and always has been what Apple has done. Apple has always put the user first. They’ve always had the user experience in mind. Google, on the other hand, has always had the handset makers and manufacturers in mind. Not you or me, not your mom, not the average consumer on the street. Suddenly, they’re eating crow.
Still, device makers took the code and dished out subpar tablets. This time around, Google appears to be reining in openness in favor of a highly controlled release of Honeycomb.
Rubin says that if Google were to open-source the Honeycomb code now, as it has with other versions of Android at similar periods in their development, it couldn’t prevent developers from putting the software on phones “and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones.”
Oh really? You think that maybe you should make an operating system that people can actually use? Madness.
Furthermore, I’ve always felt that Google’s whole “We’re open and friendly” thing was BS. I think they’re using Android as a low-quality push into the mobile space and they’re banking on widespread manufacturer adoption at the expense of the consumer. I also think they’re using Android to push their agenda in the larger scheme of things (government, Net Neutrality).
Nevertheless, the open-ended delay will likely generate unease among device makers, application developers, and members of the open-source community, many of whom are financially and philosophically invested in Android. Some critics have long questioned Google’s commitment to openness, and this latest news will give them added ammunition.
It just seems like a veiled and subtle move to shift away from “openness” now that the FCC has given mobile carriers free reign to do whatever they want to the mobile Internet space.
What a crock. This is awful for everyone.