Got Your Smartphone Yet?
It seems everyone has a smartphone. Everyone. Hey, even my mom has a smartphone. I love my Mom, and she’s super smart, but I am not kidding – this is the woman who was still typing her book manuscript on an IBM Selectric in like 1996. And she has an Android phone. Can you even buy a non-smartphone anymore? The whole world is staring at their phones and dragging their index fingers across that smooth, velvety touch screen.
As a result , there is a battle going on for the big money involved. Apple blazed the trail, but Android is now at least pulled even, and the wild card of Microsoft is out there as well. I’m not even going to talk about Palm or Blackberry, both of whom I think are out of the picture. Nevertheless, the big question is: Who’s going to win in the latest battle for supremacy in Silicon Valley?
Apple and the App Store
Apple, of course, has a good chunk of the smartphone mindshare out there with the iPhone. All the cool kids have one, and “There’s an app for that” has climbed right up there with “Can you hear me now? Good.” as a culture meme. Apple has also garnered lot of attention – not necessarily the good kind -- in the developer community for its heavy-handed approach to rules for the App Store.
Apple has had a long and storied history of being “anal” about their platform. Apple– some say to their detriment -- famously never let anyone run their operating system on anything but Apple hardware. They’ve always wanted to control every aspect of their platform and the user experience on it. That has been a key to much of their appeal.
The same is true for the iPhone/iPad. Apple is the sole vendor for the iOS software and iPhone hardware. They have an exclusive contract with AT&T to provide phone service, so if you are an iPhone owner, you are – for good or for ill – stuck with AT&T. The only way to get anything onto an iPhone is via the App Store. They take a strong-arm approach by controlling the applications that can be loaded onto an iPhone and by limiting the ability of developers to use runtime support such as Flash. They are very concerned about controlling the user experience and have made technical decisions based on this. For instance, because they are concerned about battery life, even the latest versions of iOS don’t allow for true multi-thread/multi-tasking, a feature which (as I can testify with my Android) can be murder on battery life if not done well.
Apple is the sole gatekeeper for every application on every iPhone in the world. If Apple doesn’t like your application, it isn’t going on anyone’s phone. It was only recently that Apple actually published a set of guidelines for what could and could not go up on the App Store. Before that, they could – and often did – ban an application for seemingly capricious reasons. Although they recently backed off the idea, they proposed the notion that developers would only be able to use Apple tools to build App Store applications, effectively specifying the language and frameworks that developers had to use.
The ‘Droid You Were Looking for
(Okay, that’s corny title, I know….) Anyway, while Apple blazed the trail, others are following and even catching up. Google has recently made great headway in the market with the Android operating system. Depending on who’s market numbers you believe, Android is the fastest growing and most popular smartphone platform. iPhone has a large mindshare, but Android apparently has the numbers.
With regard to application distribution and development, Google has taken a completely different approach than Apple. Android is available on multiple phones from multiple network service providers. The Android marketplace is open to all, with basically no limits on what can be built and uploaded. Android developers today use Java and C++, but there is nothing stopping anyone from creating runtimes and libraries for using any language at all. Delphi for the Android is clearly a possibility. The world of Android applications is the Wild West of the smartphone world.
What is up in Redmond?
Microsoft isn’t taking all of this lying down, either, and after a number of furtive starts, they are well on their way to providing Windows Phone 7, a .NET-based phone platform that is just now coming to the market. Microsoft reports that they, too, will have a “gatekeeper” system for applications. They appear to be taking somewhat of a middle road between Apple’s tight control and Androids free for all.
Microsoft is a bit late to the game, but since Phone 7 is based on Silverlight and .NET, they have an army of developers ready to start programming for their platform. We can’t count them out yet, but they have some catching up to do.
So, what does this mean? Who will win?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that history is going to repeat itself. In the 1990s, there was a battle in the marketplace for the desktop between the Mac and the PC. Sorry, Mac Fanboys, but the PC running Windows won – the actions of the US Department of Justice pretty much settle that argument. The PC became the dominant desktop platform. And it became so because it had the best applications.
And they had the best applications because the PC was the OS with the “Wild West” attitude. Who doesn’t remember downloading reams of crappy shareware applications written in Visual Basic with garish interfaces and 23 different versions of THREED.VBX? Sure it was a mess, but it succeeded.
I’ll argue that it succeeded because it was a mess. There were a lot of really crappy applications out there to download, but because there were a lot of them, there was a much greater chance of a good one being created. And inevitably, the good one’s rise to the top and squeeze out the bad. The platform with all the most applications, good and bad, became the platform that people wanted to use.
This compares with Apple’s model of tight control and a desire to “control the user experience”. Well, I don’t think that the user wants their user experienced controlled by a large corporation. I think they want to control their own experience. The free wheeling, wide open marketplace produces a lot of crap, but it also is the means by which the best applications can thrive. The Mac suffered because users didn’t have the breadth and depth of applications to choose from – good and bad -- that Windows users had.
The open marketplace creates the best applications for two reasons. First, just as the marketplace and not a government mandate created the iPhone, so does the competition of the marketplace produce the best applications. Tightly controlling how apps are developed, what tools can and cannot be used to develop those applications, and providing a tough gauntlet for getting apps out to consumers is not a recipe for true innovation. Innovation comes from no limits and no restrictions.
Second – and this is something that Microsoft knew well back in the 90s – the platform that attracts the developers will be the platform that produces the best applications. Developers like freedom, and Apple left a bad taste in the mouths of many developers with their famous “Section 3.3” trial balloon. Attract developers, and your platform succeeds. Microsoft proved this with Windows. Given the uncertainty and the capriciousness of Apple about the App Store, a lot of developers are going to be both hesitant and ideologically resistant to developing for the iPhone. With Apple basically owning the development tools market, is anyone going to invest a lot of time in tools and frameworks for iPhone development? Limit development to one language and you limit the number of developers who will build apps for your platform.
Now, I admit that there is no dearth of applications for the iPhone. There are about three times as many as there are on the Android Marketplace. But the market is still young, and what can be done with a smartphone is still in it’s infancy stage. We are still looking at the “DOS Phase” of smartphones. The best is yet to come, and someone is going to rule the next phase.
If you look over the list of strengths and weaknesses for the Android platform in the Dr. Dobbs Mobile Development issue, you’ll see that bears a remarkable resemblance to Windows circa 1994, and we all know how that turned out. Now, I’m not saying that the iPhone is going to disappear-- not by a long shot. The Mac is still around and going strong. But I believe that in the coming years, the “defacto” smartphone – the one that will rule the “post-DOS” smartphone world will be an Android.
I have an Android phone and I’m betting that it is the platform that comes out on top in the current shootout that is going on in the smartphone space.