Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fragmentation: What Steve Jobs and Apple got right

In a recent quarterly earnings call, Apple CEO Steve Jobs spent more than five minutes trashing competitors Research in Motion, makers of the popular Blackberry devices, and Android, a smartphone system designed and maintained by search giant Google. Though the remarks he made were prepared, that did little to hide the seething rage and disdain that Jobs holds for his two toughest competitors.   Jobs' remarks were angry, inflammatory, provocative, and absolutely dead on the mark.

The IT community, a community in which 'How much do we hate Steve Jobs today?" seems to have become a popular game, was, as you might imagine, driven to madness. Attacking RIM and the Blackberry were bad enough, but attacking Google and Android? That's just too far!  What the slobbering fanboys missed in the Jobs message, however, was the fact that nearly everything he said was true.

The main thrust of Jobs' message was focused on the fragmentation that Android has brought to the mobile application market.   Most device manufacturers don't run the stock version of Android provided by Google. They run a modified version, tailored to either their specific tastes or the whims of the carriers they service. Add to that the fact that some manufacturers are considering running their own version of the Android marketplace and you can see a situation developing where users will have so much choice that they will be  crippled. Where do users go for apps and what app stores are particular applications listed in are becoming the million dollar questions for Android users. Ultimate freedom has become ultimate chaos and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.

Now, let's compare this fragmented approach with that of Apple. There is one application store and only two targets for developers to hit: the current release of iOS and the one immediately previous to it. A single company controls both the operating system and hardware so developers know exactly what type of environment their software will be running in and what kind of services and resources will be available to it.

From the users standpoint, it's near paradise: one place to go for all applications. It doesn't matter who your carrier is (AT&T right now but more coming soon) or if you're in the US, UK, or somewhere else, it's the same store, If you find a cool app in the store that you want to tell a friend in another country about, chances are good that it will be available to them too and, if it is, it will run the same on his iPhone or iPod Touch as it does on yours.

No moving targets for users or developers. No fragmentation.

We in the open source community love to talk about choice; how, when users are given a variety of choices, competition and the free market thrive. I prefer to think of the perfect solution as 'choice within reason'.  There is absolutely no good reason for a particular phone maker to have their own app store when the Android Marketplace is already there and insanely easy to use. There's no reason why developers should have to submit to and wait for approval from multiple app stores just to get their software on users handsets. Allowing users the freedom to choose what applications they want on their handset makes sense.  Allowing them to choose which app store to use doesn't.

Users don't care about openness, they just want software.  The sad fact is that, as much as we'd like to think they do, most users don't really care if a handset is built on open technology. Ask the average Android user 'is this whole Android thing open?' and they will return a nice, blank stare.  We're fooling ourselves by pretending the majority of users actually care about 'handset freedom' and the ability to browse and modify source code. Geeks care, users don't.

Steve Jobs has it right: the false flag of 'open' versus 'closed' in the mobile space is really just a cover for fragmentation.  Apple offers a superb user experience from an integration standpoint, Android, not so much. When I pick up an iPhone, I know pretty much what's going to be on it, where things are, what the interface is going to look like. On Android, I have no clue. Those things are totally up to the manufacturer. 

What would be so evil about Google standardizing the system or saying "only one Android store"?  Would that be the end of civilization? Would that make Android "not" open?  It wouldn't matter one bit. Not a single user would complain and most wouldn't even notice. Developers would jump for joy because they would know exactly what they were developing for instead of the sludgy pile of mush that is Android today.  It would help the platform in enormous ways and would not effect usability a single bit. In fact, it would help usability too because, regardless of the Android device you used, you'd be fairly familiar with the interface and features.

Don't get me wrong, I haven't become and Android hater or an Apple fanboy.  But the fragmentation of Android is something that drives me nuts as a developer and the integration of Apple calls to me. I dream of a day of developing an application and not worrying so much about where it's deployed and on what hardware,  Hate him as you may, Jobs is an absolute genius at crafting the user experience. When he calls something 'sexy', he's usually right and at the very least I know exactly what I'm getting with an Apple product from both the user and developer perspective.

Am I going out and buying a Mac? Probably not. But I certainly thank Steve Jobs and Apple for bringing sexy back to the tech industry and for making an experience for their users like no other.

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