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Is Open Really Better?

As a consumer, I love my iPhone. After the 2.1 update, I couldn’t be happier with my phone. Battery life, reception, dropped calls, bugs—they’ve all been fixed. Sure the occasional application crashes, but the same happens on my computer.

As a developer, the iPhone is a pain. Apple’s secrecy, restrictive NDA, and AppStore rejection policies make iPhone development nothing more than a game. A game with money. Lots of money.

Regardless, I was told that there was something better. Something open. Something that would be the iPhone’s platform “done right”. And for a moment, I believed it.

I woke up last Tuesday excited about Android and the T-Mobile G1. Finally, an open platform that anyone and everyone can develop for. No more closed environments. No more proprietary systems. Must be better, right?

Then I saw it.

The G1 represents everything that is wrong with open platforms. From the clunky brick-like hardware to the typefaces used in the interface to the Android Market, everything is oozing with it—a lack of attention to detail. Screenshots look like they come from completely separate devices, and represent an overall lack of polish. Still, some say, there is more to a phone than “pretty buttons” and “business support”.

Just how much am I supposed to give up to be ‘open’?

How Open is ‘Open’?

As much as everyone would like to believe that Google can create a completely open platform where anyone can do anything, they are bound by the same limitations as Apple and other cell manufacturers. T-Mobile, not unlike other cell carriers, restricts unlocking the G1 from their cell network, and prevents tethering it to a computer1.

T-Mobile placed a 1GB cap on the G1, hardly adequate for a power-user, and would slow any additional 3G traffic to slower-than-EDGE speeds it users passed that cap. Since then, they have backed away from that statement claiming that they will only throttle bandwidth for “a small fraction” of “heavy-data users”. Whatever that means.

There’s also the fact that you can only sync contacts and calendars with your Google account. While this is a solid (free) competitor to MobileMe, it defeats the purpose of the phone being completely open.

AppStore Methodologies

People’s excitement over Android’s “open” philosophy is only escalated by the recent news of Apple rejecting apps that are too simple, too competitive, or just plain stupid. Google takes the opposite extreme, allowing anything into the Android Market. Developers can develop whatever-the-heck-they-want, and they are guaranteed admittance.

With no gatekeeper, comes no restrictions—both good and bad. The obvious downside to this is malware, spyware, and other malicious apps. It will be left up to the user’s desecration whether or not to download an app that may drain battery life or send your personal data back to some random server in China. On the flip side, developers have no restrictions for what they can or cannot develop. They are free to develop, compete, and innovate.

An open platform may have worked had there only been a single device. But Android is a multi-year project that will encompass a wide scope of devices with hundreds of varying user interfaces. Touchscreens to trackballs to keyboards to accelerometers. How can 50+ different phones made by different companies with different interfaces possibly function with apps in the Android Market?

Mark my word, three years from now, the Android Market will be a mess. Users will download—or even worse, purchase—an app, only to find that they have no way to interact with it because their phone lacks a touchscreen. Think there are a lot of flashlights and tip calculators in the AppStore now? Wait till you see the Android Market in 3 months.

Even if Google tries to restrict apps with certain capablities to certain devices, it will still be filled with a junky, inconsistent, and buggy mess. There is no one standard that all the apps in the Market have to adhere to. With everyone and their mother able to develop and publish apps, who will sift through them to make sure they are marked as “Touchscreen-only”? Sure, certain developers will be able to innovate and create apps worth buying, but from the initial screenshots of the Android Market, they will be hard to find—buried in more junk than a landfill on Boxing Day.

Some equate this “openness” argument to the OS X vs Windows argument today. Windows can be installed on any PC, which has lead to it owning 90% of the market today. While that argument has certain merit, it does not account for the fact that all PCs—including Macs—work the same way they have for the past 25 years. Every PC has a keyboard, a mouse, and a screen: and Windows looks pretty similar across them all.

Phones are very different though. There are different ways of interacting and working with applications. There are different UIs. There are different features. Imagine supporting thousands of people using your application across hundreds of different devices.

As cynical as it may sound, there is a certain beauty to closed platforms. Having a controlled environment ensures consistency and functionality, and provides a better experience for the end user. The AppStore offers many benefits to developers, but it is far from perfect. I think the ideal platform meets somewhere in the middle. Like it or not, gatekeepers have their place. But having a closed-system should not hinder the innovation of a platform—only raise the bar on the quality of applications developed.

People much smarter than me have already dissected this issue. Wil Shipley hits the nail on the head:

The App Store needs to think of itself as two different parts – it already implements these parts, but the people who run the store need to understand that these two parts are fundamentally separate:

  • Part one is a giant warehouse, where every piece of software that is not actively harmful is kept in case someone wants to buy it (remember, users can always get a refund). This warehouse can be searched with titles and keywords or an item can be directly linked.

  • Part two is like a traditional storefront, with limited real estate, so only the best or coolest applications are highlighted. It’s a recommendation engine, that highlights popular, highly-rated, or innovative applications.

Here’s to hoping that Apple will listen to developers and change the way they govern the AppStore.

G1, meet the iPhone

The iPhone was marketed as an iPod, a smartphone, and an internet communicator. Now, third-party applications can also be seen as a major selling point. With the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack, dedicated video player, and desktop syncing, the G1 is hardly a media-centric device. It barely compares to the iPod. Surprising for Google, the G1 has a significantly laggy web-browser with a clumsy UI that leads to a lackluster mobile internet experience. That leaves the phone side of things, which I haven’t seen a single screenshot published to date.

That doesn’t mean that Google hasn’t thought through some of the major flaws of the iPhone and corrected them in Android. The G1′s notification bar involves a single swipe from the top of any window, and is miles ahead of the “popup” notifications on the iPhone. One-time login into your Google account looks simple and straight forward, and the home screen is much more customizable than the iPhone.

But there are many more substantial flaws within the user interface. Fonts seems as if they were randomly picked on a per-application basis, and consistency is non-exsistant. In fact, looking at screenshots from the G1 user manual often reflect the UI of what should be multiple devices. But really, the problem lies with the lack of attention to detail Google has. Great engineers, but very poor designers.

Take for example the physical keyboard (the only physical feature besides the 3.2MP camera that bests the iPhone). Imagine working in a vertical-oriented app, and being prompted to enter a password. The user must rotate the device horizontally, slide up the keyboard, type in the password, slide down the keyboard, and rotate the phone back to the vertical orientation. Compare this with the iPhone, where the (albeit virtual) keyboard slides up right when you need it, and disappears when you don’t.

All this is above and beyond the clunky hardware, that looks as if it was inspired from the Amazon Kindle. One Google engineer points out that throughout the whole three-year development process, the design has remained exactly the same. With a 3-year old design, how can you compete with something like the iPhone?

My question is not whether “openness” in and of itself is good—but whether it can be a major selling feature to a device that offers an inferior user experience. The iPhone and the G1 are quite comparable in price—$179 and $199 respectively (although the G1 requires an extra micro-SD card to expand it’s measly 1GB of storage). For the same price, are consumers going to chose the G1 simply because it’s open?

My feelings about Android are very similar to John’s: it’s a platform that I had high hopes for, but very low expectations. If Google had offered a phone of this caliber for free, with occasional location-based “notification ads” informing me that I was 2 minutes away from Domino’s Pizza, and if I went in the next 20 minutes could save 20% off my order, I think this phone would be a huge success.

Sergey Brin said it: this phone is for geeks. The tinkering crowd. The ones that like to tear apart their gadgets from top to bottom and be in complete control. And for those geeks, this is the phone they’ve been waiting for. For the rest of us? I’m not so sure.

It’s too early to judge the success of the platform as a whole. There are many Android phones that will be released on a variety of carriers come 2009. While there’s no doubt Android is far ahead of other phone operating systems like Windows Mobile—and will be for quite awhile, by the looks of it—it seems to miss the mark on the reason I own an iPhone.

I don’t own an iPhone for it’s features. It’s quite pathetic to own a smartphone that can’t copy and paste or record video. I don’t own an iPhone to be open. I don’t own an iPhone to tinker and play with. I own an iPhone because I can wake up every morning and actually enjoy using my phone. The consistency—the experience—is something that other manufacturers (including Google) don’t get. And I’m not sure that an open platform of any kind can ever achieve the attention to detail and experience that Apple has given to the iPhone.

  1. It’ll be interesting to see how T-Mobile plans to enforce this on the G1, considering that anyone could write an unlocking or tethering app, and distribute it in the Android Market.