Google’s Android seems unstoppable. The Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas over the past few days, has seen the launch and announcement of an huge number of gadgets running Android, including so-called iPad killers like the Motorola XOOM, which be running Android’s next big version, Honeycomb.
Google is switching on 300,000 new Android devices per day! And there are more Android phone users in the US than there are iPhone users in the US.
Apple may have unleashed the age of the touchscreen super-smart phone, but Google is starting to look like the strongest contender for the future of mobile computing.
A “marketing machines” war
I was sitting with a senior executive of a regional telecom the other day who told me he felt that 2010 might turn out to be another “1990” for Apple. Back then Apple was doing really well. But post 1990, Microsoft started working like crazy to bring out the first versions of Windows, which where pretty crappy compared to the superior Macintosh operating system. But Microsoft was licensing its operating system to so many PC manufacturers which mean that Apple had to fight not only Microsoft but also the marketing machines of people like Dell, Acer, HP, IBM and many others. All of these companies where pumping out Windows PCs, while Apple refused to license its OS to others manufacturers. Consumers where surrounded by Windows PCs of all shapes and sizes and Apple started looking like an isolated island.
My telecom executive friend thinks the same thing will happen again. Google is the new Microsoft. Apple has to pit its offering against Android-based Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony Ericsson phones and tablets, and soon against ultra cheap Android devices pumped out by Chinese manufacturers.
In the late 1990s, while Steve Jobs was away, Apple finally started a half hearted effort to license MacOS to others. Umax, Radius and others started manufacturing “Mac compatibles”, only to see Steve Jobs return to the company in 1997 and stop all these agreement immediately, going back to his core philosophy of creating fully integrated appliances where software and hardware are tightly controlled, to offer users a smooth and superior experience.
Apple, still under Steve Jobs, will not license iOS. Probably never ever. So we’re back in an open vs. closed war. Apple is seen as closed. Controlling software and hardware. Even controlling which apps make it into the iOS Appstore. Google brand itself as open. Android is open-source and free. Any manufacturer can use it, change it, skin it. Its own Android app market is more open too.
Obviously, people are loving both Apple’s iOS devices and Google Android’s devices. Google is evolving Android fast. They hired Mathias Duarte, the guy behind the design of Palm’s webOS, a beautiful, smooth mobile operating system, to polish up the user experience of Android. We’re witnessing an all out mobile computing war.
Open, good. Closed, bad?
Google’s executives speak almost religiously about the inevitability of the eventual historical triumph of open systems over closed system. They would claim that what Apple has going for it is a short term lead with a great closed system, but that eventually Google’s vision of providing an open and “free” mobile OS to the world will eventually win.
Jobs has made interesting comments recently, trying to change the conversation from open vs. closed to integrated vs. fragmented: What do end USERS really care about? Is it “openness” or getting a phone that “just works”? Google is forced to think of different hardware partners, screen sizes, skin-ability (i.e. manufacturer-specific visual and functional layers that HTC, Samsung and others end up sticking over Android), the presence or absence of physical buttons, etc. etc. Apple just has to worry about a limited set of its own devices, striving to perfect the overall experience.
It’s a very interesting philosophical debate.
Does open always win against closed in the world of human products?
It got me thinking.
Yes, I believe standards, especially open standards are important. Where would we be without international agreements on aviation control? Hasn’t the development of standard shipping containers revolutionized global trade? Aren’t JPEG, USB, HTML, CSS, MP3 great technologies that allow people to innovate around agreed standards. Isn’t the extensibility of Linux, PHP and WordPress great?
Obviously, humanity would benefit from global standards. Even better if they are open, where everyone can contribute to the development of platforms that all of humanity can use.
But maybe there is a limit to openness? What is the real-world situation when it comes to open vs. closed?
Cars, watches, fridges. Who wants openness?
But lets look at other industries. Let’s talk about cars.
Maybe it is a shame that humanity has not yet developed a mass produced, open source car platform. The car industry is over 100 years old. But Mercedes is still Mercedes. People buy the Mercedes brand, experience and package.
Maybe there is a standard automobile platform in our future. But Mercedes has thrived and will probably still thrive in the decades to come while remaining a manufacturer of what is essentially a closed package of design, engineering and propriety technologies.
Let’s talk about watches. Is Rolex feeling the pressure of some open source system that will be used to run all watches. Probably not.
When buying a fridge, you want it to be compatible with certain global (or semi global) standards: you want it to run on 220 Volt electricity, to adhere to safety standards, maybe be EnergyStar certified and so on. But you wouldn’t care if it was based on an open fridge standard.
Granted, a computer is not a fridge. A computer is a mix of a number of technologies and can have endless applications. But I think it would be naive to judge Apple’s “integrated” and “controlled” offering, just because Google says that Apple is on the wrong side of the open/closed divide.
Pure engineering thinkers might consider all the success of closed companies as an unfortunate period of human development. Maybe they see in Google the dawn of a new utopian age of openness. We should note, though, that Google is, of course, a profit-making company and not a global NGO. Google is in the advertising business and what they want are more an more eyeballs looking at their search, video and communication products to sell more ads. Android is not exactly like Linux or HTML.
Closed innovation. Starting from scratch
Finally, let’s talk about innovation. When Apple turned the phone industry upside down with the iPhone in 2007, it came out with a fundamental kind of innovation. The overall user experience of Android (and most other mobile OSs) still lags behind Apple’s perfection. Apple also innovated an ecosystem around its products. The AppStore and iTunes Store are an integral part of the Apple mobile experience.
Innovation sometimes means ignoring the norms and standards and going for something totally new.
Now consider what Samsung is doing now. It is bolting its own “TouchWiz” interface thing over Android. Although Android is open source, Samsung will still be tied to Google’s innovation roadmap. How will this affect the ability to innovate in the Android universe. Will Apple-like breakthroughs be possible?
It is hard to predict the future of mobile computing. For one Microsoft might still be able to make a come back here with its pretty amazing WIndows Phone 7 offering. Blackberry is still number 1 in the US smartphone market. Nokia needs to reinvent itself and will not just give up. HP/Palm is still lurking in the market. What if Facebook comes out with a mobile computing/communication platform?
With Google’s unstoppable energy behind it, Android might well dominate the world starting 2011. But Apple is the highest valued US tech company and its vision of design and experience perfection might still guarantee it a dominant position, or at least a large and very profitable niche of the market, even if it is remains “closed”.
Apple could eventually become the Posrsche of mobile computing. Or it will use its huge cash reserves, become more expansionist and go for more device diversity (think of a 100$ iPhone) to try to outsell the major Android manufacturers combined.
The future: don’t forget the hardware!
If we take the risk of attempting a medium to long term view of mobile computing we need consider all the factors including technical innovation, design, open vs. closed systems, branding, ecosystems and distribution. I can imagine a situation where a lot of the applications become cloud based, living on the “open standards” web. Here is where openness could win (this doesn’t mean Google will win necessarily. Maybe Facebook or Twitter!). But the physical embodiment of mobile computers could become the exciting arena o newf “closed” innovation. Think immersive 3D. Think augmented reality. Think location. Think digital to organic body interfacing.
All cars run on the same “open standard” petrol worldwide. But there are still Hyundais, Mercedeces and Toyotas to choose from.