just one more geek in a sea of austin techies

October 1, 2012

iOS: Four Walls and No Gate #MobileGeek

iOS vs. Android? 
Consider the roads...
Van Baker, an analyst from Gartner (the world's largest technology research and advisory company) who analyzes Apple products, was recently quoted on the iOS-versus-Android smartphone debate as saying Android is heralded mostly by "technologists" while iOS is more often supported by "fans". The implication is that Android proponents have concrete, technical reasons backing their choice while iOS proponents are more simply driven by fandom.

I agree with the "technologists" part of the assessment but, taking a few steps back, I also doubt there would be any serious complaints if iOS had remained the only game in town. Why? Let's compare mobile technology to US roadways...

HTC's PocketPC Phone
(circa 2002) was first 3.5-inch
touchscreen phone in the US.
Notice the rounded corners and
big button below the screen that
Apple claims as unique design
patents on the 2007 iPhone.

History Check
Although certain devices in the 1990's could easily be classified as "smartphones", the arrival of the first "modern" smartphones can be best linked to the launching of Nokia's Symbian OS in 2000, Microsoft's Windows PocketPC OS in 2001 and the Palm OS Treo smartphone in 2002. These all made for very viable devices but the release of the iPhone in 2007 was the first realization of everything mobile technology could and should be. Five years later I still can't think of another product that, on its very first try, was so successful in combining so many different aspects of tech while offering so much utility in such a user-friendly fashion.

(More than) Just the Specs, Mam
Smartphone history aside, what's the bottom line today?  The reality is that iOS, Andriod and Windows Phone all provide excellent mobile platforms and there are great hardware options available for each of them.  There isn't anything one OS offers that can't be matched by the others.

When it comes to technical specs the new iPhone lags a little behind the top Android offerings and even some near-term Windows Phone offerings. Specifications don't tell the whole story, though. Incremental improvements in speed and memory don't translate to noticeably better Facebook app performance. A bigger screen doesn't help if your favorite app isn't offered on the selected platform. If grandma is overwhelmed by options then grandma won't be thrilled with her phone no matter how capable it may be.

So, spec technicalities aside, with all the platforms and supporting hardware generally on par with one another the real distinctions are in the apps and the processes surrounding those apps. This is where things get sticky.

If There Was Only iOS, Everyone Would Be Happy
Don't hang me on this one -- I count myself an Android fan. That said, if iOS had remained the only real game in town people in general would be pretty satisfied. Why?

If There Was Only Platform...
Let's imagine that Ford Motor Company is the only *big* car manufacturer and that Ford's business model is based as much on operating toll roads as on selling cars. Imagine that Ford (not the government) created the first interstate system of highways which, for small fees (tolls), made it easy for people to get from major city to major city via safe, well-maintained tollways. To help get people started using the new roadways Ford produced a number of good-but-basic vehicles. What Ford really wanted, however, was for other companies to produce a great variety of vehicles and pay Ford a fee to allow those vehicles to be sold and operated on Ford's tollways. As more companies sold cars, more drivers would use Ford's tollways and pay more tolls.  Let's suppose that Ford goes even further and helps insure vehicle/roadway compatibility by requiring that third party manufacturers meet certain build criteria by using only Ford-provided manufacturing centers and Ford-provided parts.

Comparing the time before Ford (no cars or superhighways) to the new reality built by Ford it's easy to imagine how the public could be very satisfied with Ford's offerings and business model. Suddenly people are free to travel more quickly to distant places on their own schedule (no planes, trains or boats) and do it in a reasonably safe, ordered and dependable manner.

Competition = Discord
Now let's imagine that a new company, Chevrolet (Chevy), decided to make a business doing what Ford does. Of course, Ford won't share with Chevy all the roadways Ford has invested so much to build -- Chevy will have to build its own roads. How will Chevy distinguish its business and get people to use its roads instead of Ford's roads?

Chevy decides to allow anyone to produce vehicles for its roadways without need to pay licenses or be forced to use Chevy's manufacturing facilities. (Chevy would instead make money from billboards, travel guides and marketing data related to drivers.)  Other companies will be allowed to build their own compatible roadways and connect them to Chevy's roads. Individual drivers will be allowed to modify vehicles however they like or even build and operate custom vehicles using any tools and parts they like. Finally Chevy decides to support the inclusion of small roadways (even if some vehicles will be too big to use them) so drivers will have many more options on where to go and what routes they can take.

Suddenly a large number of formerly-satisfied drivers are not so satisfied. Even if they mainly stick to the interstates, they still desire the option of having more routes available even if many of the smaller roads are rough and hard to navigate. They like the idea that individuals can build, modify and operate their own cars without needing special approval from Ford and without being limited to using Ford manufacturing and Ford parts.

Unregulated third-party vehicles mean a much greater chance for "bad" and even "unsafe" vehicles. Consumers like to be taken care of ("bad" products not allowed to make it to market) but many consumers also prefer, within reason, a minimum of regulation: they accept a certain level of "buyer beware" in return for added choices. This is "the market will work itself out" mentality that says that bad products and services will not survive long in a free market. (Yugo, anyone?)

Ford and Chevy and Apple and Google
Just to make my imaginary example perfectly clear:  Ford = Apple and Chevy = Google. In my example Ford built a walled-garden system where Ford maintained complete control of roadways and only allowed in vehicles that met its criteria including the parts under the hood.  In contrast, Chevy built a baseline road system and invited partners to attach compatible road systems while allowing anyone to build and use any vehicle using any parts, not just Chevy parts.

  Mfg/Parts = Software build tools
   Vehicles = Apps
   Roadways = Operating System/Phones
              (small roadways = less-capable phones)

Apple Bad?...
Starting with the very first iPhone, Apple has not allowed iOS apps *not* built using Apple's own software build tools running on Apple's own hardware (Mac PCs), even third-party tools that produce code indistinguishable from code produced by Apple's own tools. That point merits repeating: even when the end product meets 100% of Apple's code requirements, Apple won't allow it if you didn't use a Mac to compile it. That's not about insuring quality -- that's a flat-out "pay-to-play" tax. This is analogous to Apple telling recording artists that they cannot sell their songs in the iTunes store unless a Mac was used to record them (it probably was, but still...)

Apple's walled garden
means less choice
On top of being forced to use a Mac to write app software, developers first have to pay Apple $100 to join the "iOS developer program" in order to even attempt to build and submit an app. Once an app is created, if it duplicates something another app already does, Apple can deny the developer the chance to offer it (even for free) to other iOS users. In such cases Apple makes no distinctions about how valuable the offering may be or whether it is clearly superior to existing apps. This is the type of non-choice that has Android proponents lobbing #iSheep labels at many iOS consumers.

Apple doesn't foster a "best of breed" ecosystem but rather is focused on "protecting turf". This rewards first-to-market app developers but only at a clear cost to consumers who are robbed of choice without even knowing it. Yes, there are still far more iOS apps available than Android and Windows Mobile apps combined but... how many good iOS apps aren't available because of Apple's policies? How many app developers are too discouraged by policy to even bother with trying to improve upon existing iOS apps? How many half-baked apps have been rushed to the App Store just to try to secure the "first" designation and protect the space from competitors?

...or Apple Good?
Back to my original premise:
If iOS had remained the only game in town everyone would be happy.

What if Apple's walled garden was the only garden? What if the walled garden was the only place to easily see and enjoy so many different plants in one place and, though not including all plant varieties, the plants were always healthy and well-presented? Surely such a garden would be considered a treasure. If there were iOS and no other viable mobile platforms the world just might be united in continuing to sing praises.

Why Are Phones Different?
In practice we know that the extreme of "no regulation" can be as or even more awful as "no choice" is.  Some regulation is good, but how much? Google is actively attempting to add regulation both to fight piracy and to help the Android platform avoid splintering into a confusing mess of incompatible variations between different phone makers -- two worries that the iOS ecosystem does not share.

...iOS fans see a well-maintained garden while Android fans see four walls and no gate...
Apple's walled-garden approach is great when it keeps out the weeds but it begins to resemble a jail when it won't allow you to visit a different garden or even to import better versions of existing flora. iOS fans see a well-maintained garden while Android fans see four walls and no gate.

Most people wouldn't stand to be dictated to regarding which roads we can travel or which cars we can drive. In this analogy Ford/Apple allows use of the Mini Cooper but not the Audi A1 because it is deemed too similar to the Mini despite meeting all other Ford guidelines. Meanwhile Chevy/Google allows individual users to go so far as to build their own hotrods and custom bikes as well as drive them on any road available, not just Chevy-built roads.

The question is: why is consumer choice for phones and apps different from consumer choice for roads and cars? The answer is, of course: it isn't. There are so very many apps available and the smartphone segment is still so new to the mass consumer market and iOS/iPhones work so well that the underlying lack of certain iOS-related choices is hard for the average consumer to notice or appreciate.  Many consumers accept that the iPhone ecosystem simply "is the way it is" much like the historic lack of choice in cable TV was accepted for decades. Eventually the masses will come to demand the same level of free-market choice in phones/apps that we tend to enjoy in most all other products. We've just witnessed this "consumer demand" scenario play out on a small scale with the Apple iMaps fiasco where iOS users were made *very* aware of the wildly popular choice Apple didn't allow them to have: continued use of a native Google Maps app.

Until a majority of consumers demand choice at all levels Apple will stick to its highly profitable plan of protecting and expanding its "walled-garden, fewer-choices" ecosystem. Fewer choices can be a good thing (we don't want to pick from 100 candidates on the final presidential ballot) but on a number of counts Apple offers no choice at the expense of end users. So far consumers have largely been satisfied with Apple's imposed limitations and so app developers have been compelled to either accept Apple's terms or go home. Considering the first five years' wild success, perhaps Apple can pull off the cable company trick and ride that business model for the next few decades or more...

Side note:
This article could just as easily have been a "Windows versus Linux" topic. Apple isn't doing anything that countless other companies haven't done before it in some fashion or another -- Apple has simply been doing it far, far better than most other companies could ever hope to do.

Also: in real life I tend to prefer Ford over Chevy.

No comments:

Post a Comment