Thursday, October 21, 2010

Opener than thou

Like many analysts, I thought one of the most striking things about Apple’s earnings call Monday was how much time Steve Jobs spent criticizing Google, particularly on openness. The frenemy of a year ago now seems to have become a rivalry every bit as bitter as Microsoft was during the early 90s. (Perhaps this is a side effect of vying for Total World Domination, much like the European Great Power rivalries from 1588-1918).

(I wasn’t able to capture the money quotes in realtime, but fortunately — as it does every quarter — Seeking Alpha has posted a complete transcript within a few hours. This is a great increase in financial openness over the way things were done 5-10 years ago.)

Here’s are some of the key points that Jobs (clearly) read from his prepared remarks:

Google loves to characterize Android as open, and iOS and iPhone as closed. We find this a bit disingenuous and clouding the real difference between our two approaches. …

In addition to Google's own app marketplace, Amazon, Verizon and Vodafone have all announced that they are creating their own app stores for Android. So there will be at least four app stores on Android, which customers must search among to find the app they want and developers will need to work with to distribute their apps and get paid. …

In reality, we think the open versus closed argument is just a smokescreen to try and hide the real issue, which is, what's best for the customer, fragmented versus integrated. We think Android is very, very fragmented and becoming more fragmented by the day. And as you know, Apple's strives for the integrated model so that the user isn't forced to be the systems integrator.
Some people called this a “rant,” but Jobs was far more factually accurate than the average political ad (admittedly a low bar) or even a typical comparative product TV ad (say from a cellphone carrier.)

Of course, there are important ways that Android is more open than the iPhone. It’s available from multiple hardware vendors and multiple carriers, not just from vertically integrated Apple. And the software is available royalty-free to other potential handset makers from the Open Handset Alliance, facilitating entry by even more vendors.

Other measures of openness are less important. Android founder (now Google mobile exec) Andy Rubin replied to Jobs with his first tweet about “the definition of open” being the ability to modify the source code. Like other Google execs, Rubin has a habit of using openness as a weapon against rivals and has been peddling the Android openness angle for some time.

While I haven’t met him, I’m guessing even a former geek like Rubin is too smart to drink too much of his own Kool-Aid.® Providing source code is only a small part of open source openness: as CNET’s Steven Shankland points out, being able to modify Android source code has little practical value to customers. In reality, Google determines the direction of the Android code base, and because letting go is hard to do, will likely to do so indefinitely.

Google’s openness glass is half-full, too. (Or, more charitably, it’s 2/3 full while Apple’s is only 3/8 full.) As Matt Asay so famously noted:
Google is a self-interested, profit-maximizing, semi-proprietary co that embraces openness when it suits its purposes
In fact, in one way Android is far less open than Apple. To get access to the customers of cellphone carriers, Google and its hardware partners have acceded to the closed demands of those carriers. Exhibit A is MG Siegler’s oft-remarked posting on TechCrunch last month:
Android Is As Open As The Clenched Fist I’d Like To Punch The Carriers With
MG Siegler

The thought of a truly open mobile operating system is very appealing. The problem is that in practice, that’s just simply not the reality of the situation. Maybe if Google had their way, the system would be truly open. But they don’t. Sadly, they have to deal with a very big roadblock: the carriers.

The result of this unfortunate situation is that the so-called open system is quickly revealing itself to be anything but. Further, we’re starting to see that in some cases the carriers may actually be able to exploit this “openness” to create a closed system that may leave you crying for Apple’s closed system — at least theirs looks good and behaves as expected.
The proliferation of carrier-controlled app stores (as mentioned by Jobs) is just one of the problems that ceding control to the carriers has created.

The reality was that breaking the control of the carriers with the iPhone was one of the greatest contributions Steve Jobs (or anyone) has made to ICT openness in the 21st century. Now perhaps someday we’ll get a choice of iPhone carriers here in the US, as other countries have had for years.

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