A computer in my pocket
It’s astounding to me that Americans tolerate our mobile phone landscape. Imagine going into a computer store, and being told that the computer you buy can only run on 1 of 3 different internets. And that it comes with all the software pre-installed, and that the software can’t be changed. (OK, well, you can add more software from a small, restricted supply provided by the computer vendor, and only for steep prices.) The hardware is opaque. The operating system is opaque. You have no freedom whatsover. Would you buy this computer? Millions of Americans buy cellphones like this, and don’t think twice. Meanwhile in Japan (which is 5 years in the future) I’ve been told that the phones are so powerful and usable that they’ve actually become a replacement for laptop computers. People spend more time emailing, instant messaging, websurfing, and shopping on their phones than they do on regular computers. Have you seen any phone in the U.S. with a user interface that would allow you to do that?
I sound like an Apple commercial, for sure, but I’m also still really hopeful for Google’s Android platform as a major contender. Android isn’t a specific phone like the iPhone (or “gPhone”, as some have said): it’s a whole class of phones. Google got a bunch of phone manufacturers together, got them to agree on a hardware platform, and then wrote a complete Linux/Java-based phone operating system to run on this hardware specification. The entire operating system will be 100% open source when it gets released later this year, and I’ve even started learning how to write applications for it, using the Android SDK. (My first project has been to help someone write a z-machine of course, so you can run text adventures on your Android phone!) You can bet that when the first batch of Android phones is released later this year, I’ll be ditching my iPhone for one.
What’s interesting to me, it seems, is that Apple and Google are now about to compete head-to-head in this market, but with completely different philosophies. Apple is the Cathedral, Google is betting on the Bazaar.
Over in Apple’s universe, there is only one single phone. The hardware and software of the phone are completely secret, and tightly controlled by a single entity. Even the distribution of applications is centralized and tightly controlled: authors must distribute them only through Apple’s iTunes Store, and only after Apple has approved them as legitimate.
In Google’s corner, though, everything is open. The hardware is merely a spec — dozens or hundreds of phones will be created that are compatible, allowing users to choose the form factors and features they want. The operating system is completely open, effectively part of the public domain. Anyone can examine or modify the system, and I expect multiple ‘distributions’ to be released with different purposes, just as there are multiple Linux distros for my computer. And as with any normal computer platform, absolutely anyone can write an application anywhere and give it to anyone else (“caveat emptor” — which means “we hope you like it!”).
I know it’s a cliche analogy, but the two worlds sort of feel like the difference between a centrally-planned, tightly-controlled economy versus a big free market. Who will win? People could argue that capitalism has historically been more successful than planned economies. People could also argue that the chaotic Windows/PC market has historically been more successful than the centralized universe of Mac computers. But Macs are starting to make a big comeback now. There’s clearly a large segment of the population that’s willing to give up some freedom for the convenience of not having to make choices. Heck, I have a Mac and love it. My days of building PCs from parts and messing around with Linux software packages are long over; my time is too valuable, and Macs Just Work. I wonder if after I have a long affair with my Android phone I’ll eventually end up going back to an iPhone?