Open vs. Closed, Google vs. Apple, iPhone vs. Android

Open systems don’t always win.

Some friends asked me what I thought of Steve Jobs’ “epic” anti-Google rant, namely the bit about “fragmented vs. integrated” systems.

First, I’m not an Apple or Google fanboy. Both companies are the dominant players in the most exciting, yet restricted, tech space going. They’ll both continue to innovate and suck up to the wireless carriers.

Second, here’s the difference between “integrated” and “fragmented” as I see it.

Integrated

Steve Jobs is a disciplined guy. He has absolute ideas about design and technology, and he executes them. He’s also obsessed with the needs and desires of end users, rather than wireless carriers (most manufacturers consider the carriers, not the consumers, their customers). The design gurus in Cupertino design a gadget top to bottom, hardware and software, and insist on making every inch of it accessible to end users of all stripes. Consumers know exactly what they’re getting when they buy an iPhone, and that product is top-notch and revolutionary. It’s a strategy that has pushed computing in all its iterations forward over the last 30 years.

But as Google has shown, Jobs’ way isn’t the only way to a) dominate the market, or b) create attractive, game-changing technology.

Fragmented

By designing an open mobile operating system that OEMs (manufacturers) can customize as they please, Google took the obvious (read: Microsoft) route to overturning Apple’s dominance. Apple not only has just one mobile phone to sell, with one version of its iOS software, but it currently has a deal with just one wireless carrier (this will clearly change in the near future). Google, on the other hand, has an Android handset just for you. Are you on Sprint and on a limited budget? There’s a phone for you. On Verizon and want a giant pancake-sized phone to watch movies? You’re covered.

The problem with this approach is the one Apple solves at the outset, and which Google attempted to solve with the Nexus One: The problem of software and hardware purity. Because hardware manufacturers want to differentiate their products, and wireless carriers want to wring every cent out of consumers, we’re treated to a mish-mash of Android builds, none of which offer a substantively better experience than so-called “vanilla” Android does, and most of which offer a lesser experience (why should we expect Motorola to design a good UI?).

I’m not as much an evangelist about Android’s “open” nature as others are. Yes, Android is more open than the iPhone, but until hardware manufacturers and the wireless carriers release devices from their iron grip, most consumers won’t really benefit from that openness. Instead, most folks will buy a cool new Android phone because it’s flashy, it’s fast, you can download apps, and it does what an iPhone can do.

Android is, for now, still in the wild west phase. Users can install any app they like; there’s no centralized app store deciding what you can and can’t see (of course, that app store is completely chaotic). The architecture of Android itself includes all sorts of ways for applications to plug into it, but then you risk a UI disaster. And a vibrant community of modders and hackers has evolved to provide alternative “ROMs” that users can install instead of the Android version that came installed on their phone, but a tiny minority is interested in this kind of customization.

The Bottom Line

Android is “open,” but that openness mostly benefits manufacturers and carriers, makes Google a bundle in advertising, and succeeds in getting Android into as many hands as possible.

The iPhone’s “integrated” strategy allows Apple to control every aspect of the device, and to make it near perfect. Consumers know this, and have made the iPhone 4 the top-selling iPhone so far.

Google’s fragmentation and Apple’s integration stem from both design philosophy and business strategy. But the truth is, Google’s open philosophy is ultimately in the service of the business strategy: Open is better because more people buy open Android phones.

Apple is stuck making a similar argument. In Steve Jobs’ view, closed is better. Controlling the app store, the hardware and the software provides a better experience for the consumer. And that leads to… more iPhone sales.

Meanwhile, we the people are seeing a revolution in computing; smartphones and the mobile Internet are incredible gateways to democratic participation. In that light, the big question is: Are we in the midst of philosophical fight about the future of mobile, or a fight about competing business strategies? It’s mixture of both, but sadly, the bottom line wins over philosophy any day.

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