A computer in my pocket

This entry was posted by on Friday, 7 March, 2008 at

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?

Starting last fall, I’ve been pretty excited about the new generation of “smartphones” coming out. We’re starting to get closer to the ideal of “computer in the pocket.” The iPhone I carry around with me is the first phone I’ve ever had which hasn’t frustrated me. It’s a real pleasure to use. And it has set the bar incredibly high — it’s like carrying a 1998 computer wherever you go. No, it can’t do everything my desktop computer can do, but even a computer from 1998 is still pretty handy: a real web browser with fonts and CSS and javascript; a beautiful finger-driven email reader; and now that Apple has finally allowed developers to write native applications with the iPhone SDK, it can even play OpenGL games that appear to be from 1998. But again… it’s in my pocket. In my pocket. As the VC guy in the Apple iPhone SDK video, the whole paradigm is changing. The computer in my pocket knows who I am, and it knows where I am. It’s intensely personal, and will change the computing game as much as the personal computer changed things.

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? :-)

6 Comments to A computer in my pocket

  1. Mark Phippard says:

    March 7th, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I have not really looked at Android in depth. Is Google doing anything with it that effectively forces the companies that adopt it to keep it open? I just do not trust that the Verizon’s or Nokia’s or whomever build something on it will not still look for ways to lock the user out from doing what they want with it. Maybe they will initially to compete with Apple, but eventually I think they will try to find ways to close it off again.

    Another thing you do not touch on is how abysmal the user experience is for a computer today, especially Linux-based computers. Most of the current generation of phones are arguably even worse, but my point is that the reason the iPhone matters is the experience. You do not have to be a tech-geek to use it. Android will have to match that. I do not think the average user will care if they are locked in to someone else’s platform. There will obviously be people that will care, but most users will not. They will want it to work and be simple. That is what Android has to solve. I do not think history is on its side, but it probably still has a chance.

    Mark

  2. jackr says:

    March 7th, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Apple’s been competing against the bizarre since the very beginning. A surprising number of the problems of the PC market are there in order to encourage many players … all that “this network card only half works” stuff, and all that “you can buy a baseline system cheap, but anyone with any sense spends hours building up a list of essential add-ons” for examples.

    Of course, Google’s sure to be a completely different sort of bazaar than WinTel, possibly different even than LinTel. I agree with Mark, that the consumer market is not going to learn to care about the network exclusiveness or closed packaging any time soon.

    And I just don’t believe we’re quite getting the whole story, in these “postcards from the future” about Japanese phones replacing computers. Hypertrophic thumbs granted, and mechanical keyboards over touch screens too, I can’t believe in many people entering text even as large as, say, this blog. The Japanese relationship to their text is just completely worlds away from a “Western European” (which, of course, includes USA and Australia, to name to geographically detached members). I don’t buy that the experience will transfer, without some more details.

  3. Ben Collins-Sussman says:

    March 8th, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    So my questions for you guys, then: why *has* the Wintel universe been so much more successful than the “just works” Mac for ~20 years? If people are going to flock to the iPhone’s elegance and convenience over all other phones, why didn’t they flock to the Mac in the same way? Or are we comparing Apples with oranges?

    By the way, try the Android emulator. The UI really is extremely close to the iPhone’s in terms of simplicity and elegance.

  4. Muthu Ramadoss says:

    March 10th, 2008 at 12:07 am

    The computer in the pocket is right on. There’s plenty of device manufactures and O/S distros available right now. If we consider Microsoft, Apple and Google from a developer perspective like me, who runs a mobile company in Chennai, India..

    1. We run Linux.
    2. We do mobile application development.

    Given the above facts, there’s only one choice for me.. and that is to develop on Android. Windows Mobile and iPhone development requires its own set of devices and protocols which given our company infrastructure doesn’t fit well atleast from a R&D perspective.

    Of course we do Windows Mobile and iPhone if our customers want it.

    Summary:

    To quickly play with your mobile ideas, nothing beats Android in terms of flexibility and pricing atleast for now.

  5. Akula says:

    March 27th, 2008 at 11:56 am

    I think this….

    “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.”

    …misses the point. I like tinkering and choice as much as the next guy. I’ve built my fair share of PCs, and used Linux even before Ubuntu when it was nowhere close to user friendly (kudos, Ubuntu folks, for realizing that Linux should be in the home, not just the data center…).

    But a lot of the time, I don’t want to screw around fixing stuff when I need to rely on it. I want something that “just works” and works in an intuitive way. There’s a reason the iPod, and now the iPhone have succeeded in markets that everyone said were impossible to crack due to heavy competition.

    The reason the Mac has bad market share and an uphill struggle was years of foolish management at Apple (and overpriced confusing products) that lasted just long enough for the Windows monopoly to get fully entrenched.

    Netscape was, and Firefox is a better browser than IE, but how do you explain the fact that Mozilla’s browser (like the Mac) hasn’t overtaken Microsoft’s market share? That’s basic monopoly leveraging at work.

    Things are changing though, mostly thanks to iPod/iPhone “halo effect,” Apple management that doesn’t stink, and Vista’s general suckiness. Apple now has 14% of all US retail sales, and 25% dollar share of all US-based PC retail sales…a big upswing.

    I’m really looking forward to Android, too, and love the open philosophy behind it. But Google’s products have succeeded because, like Apple, they keep things simple, yet powerful. Simplicity doesn’t inherently equal a lack of functionality or options. It often just means good design so options you don’t use as often aren’t shoved in your face the 95% of the time you don’t need to access them. That’s why the Google home page was so refreshing when it came out next to the disorganized f of AOL and Yahoo at the time. That’s the biggest reason I have hope for Android…that it’ll be powerful AND simple at the same time, like a good product should be.

  6. FormerLoyalAppleCustomer says:

    July 15th, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    I have always been a loyal Apple customer, but will never purchase another Apple product again….it’s a decision based on principle. I just got back from the last apple store in my state to have iphones. The website indicated that the store had phones left last night, so I went at open and they only allowed about five people to purchase phones, because they only had a few left. In sum, I had to make three tripes to Apple stores over the past five days and, because I didn’t have time to wait four hours at a time, was never able to get an iphone.

    I believe this is all because Apple has decided to ONLY sell the phone at Apple stores and not stock enough of them in order to increase hype and publicity around the product. They are using their customers as pawns in a chess game, in which they win a few extra billion dollars.

    I’ve decided, based on principle, to refrain from buying an iphone or any other Apple products in the future. They should think about their customers first and worry about marketing tactics second.