Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) CEO Steve Jobs went ballistic on the topic of competition from Android on last Tuesday's earnings call. Steve's arguments ranged far and wide, but they boiled down to the following:
- When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) calls Android "open" and iOS "closed," it's somewhere in between a misunderstanding and lying to your customers.
- Android is fragmented and thus hard to develop great apps for.
- Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) , Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , and Vodafone (NYSE: VOD ) (among others, actually) have their own Android app stores in the works to confuse the heck out of users; Apple has one app store, and it's a joy to use.
- You don't need to experiment with new form factors and screen sizes -- Apple already figured out what's best, and the result is the iPhone and the iPad.
I'm not here to debunk all of these points -- Steve is right on the money with respect to the Android app-store situation, for example. More choice isn't always better for the user, unless paired with a comparison-shopping service that guides us to whatever store might provide the apps we're looking for. Google doesn't do that for Android apps.
That's where the praise stops
But much of Steve's remaining arguments ring untrue in my ears:
- The fragmentation issue is actually mainly a problem for unskilled or careless developers, as Google has made it rather easy to make your programs adapt to all-new screen sizes, resolutions, operating-system versions, new capabilities, and more. Sure, you need to read the "best practices" guidelines in the Android developer help files and then adjust accordingly. But shouldn't you do that anyway, with or without adapting your app to various use cases? The bigger issue ties right back to the Android Market criticism: How do you distinguish the good apps from the bad without proper search tools?
- Don't you think it should be up to the users to decide what they want rather than having Steve Jobs choosing on their behalf? A minuscule or extra-large tablet may be just what I need for some specialized situation that Jobs never thought of. There may never be an iPad to fit that need, but if HTC or Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) doesn't come up with one for the Android platform, you can rest assured that either Samsung or Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) eventually will. The device may not become a blockbuster hit on its own, but add up a few hundred and you have a compelling choice of tools for any user -- shifting millions of units. And yes, we do have comparison-shopping services available to help guide users to the correct Android gadget.
You say "open," Steve says "tomato"
The openness discussion is where Steve's criticism swerves from plain old marketing spin to an outright misunderstanding, and it shows why I think he'd be smart to let his PR team and a couple of smart engineers look over his speeches before they're delivered on a public stage.
"We are very committed to the integrated approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as closed," Steve said. "And we are confident that it will triumph over Google's fragmented approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as open."
Steve is comparing kumquats to pomegranates here, starting from this problematic assumption: "The first thing most of us think about when we hear the word open is Windows, which is available on a variety of devices."
If you hear open and think Windows, you don't use the same definition of the word as Google does and you probably also brush your teeth with a comb because it's close enough to the right thing. Open software does not necessarily run on the greatest number of devices -- that's what standardized software does on standards-compliant hardware. Open, in this context, means that anyone can access, read, and modify the source code.
Android chief Andy Rubin made this point in a now-famous Twitter post, defining "open" as the commands necessary to download and compile the Android operating system. Although the message was delivered by an obvious ultra-geek with a large chip on his shoulder, it shines a spotlight on how differently Apple and Google think about their users. Apple tells you what's best, and you'd better be happy with the pronouncements from on high; Google tells you to make your own choices and ask a global community of other geeks for help if you can't figure it out yourself.
As former Apple CEO John Sculley recently told a BusinessWeek reporter, designers are kings at Apple while engineers make the decisions elsewhere:
The designers are the most respected people in the organization. Everyone knows the designers speak for Steve because they have direct reporting to him. It is only at Apple where design reports directly to the CEO.
This makes for great-looking products that a lot of people clearly love, but it also gives rise to a lack of features and form-over-function issues like Antennagate.
Reading Steve's mind
Read into Steve's rant what you will, but here's my take: You don't spend this much time, energy, and infuriated passion to slam a competitor this way unless you're worried about it. We're looking at a titanic clash between diametrically opposed business philosophies: Apple is the Fisher-Price of consumer electronics, making everything as easy and as pretty as possible while expecting its users to like its vision the most; Google expects you to think for yourself and make your own choices, and it lets an army of coders and suppliers create what users want best through a series of trials and errors. And I think the commander of the Toy Army is worried that its approach won't win this time.