This weekend, on a bike ride, I was thinking through the Apple vs Google situation, as well as the paid vs non-paid, and this whole concept of open systems vs closed and I came to the conclusion that it is really just about geeks vs non-geeks.
For about the past 20 years or so, computer stuff, anything digital really, has been produced primarily by the geeks at Microsoft, and later by various open source geeks around the world. It was reflecting their world view, that everyone ought to be able to tinker, and that they might want to. This caused the severe amounts of confusion that people have had for years.
It would appear that now that consumers have a clear and viable choice in Apple and the iPhone that they are choosing, in droves, really, the closed app store based system. It would appear that consumers would prefer an app store to the open web, an individual coherent vision to multiple pieces of different developer’s visions of the optimal way to do x. As Apple likes to put it, they want an appliance, in which applications are just another type of content, and all methods of doing anything are consistent.
I would say that consumers have chosen that, but not because Apple always provides a superior method, or that they like being closed an limited, I would say that it is because Us, as geeks, have not done a good job of providing clear and usable alternatives. For developers and geeks, configuration and making tons of choices are just table stakes for getting our devices and software working exactly the way we want them to work. We have a difficult time creating things that violate the ability to choose a different way. Part of that is that most of us never have the hubris to think that we can decide for others how to do a given thing, or which thing to choose. But that is exactly what makes Apple more powerful than Google to the consumer. Google is catching on, but in a way, at the same time they just don’t get it.
I, personally, understand and prefer many choices. I like Mac OS X and Linux, particularly because there are so many different ways to set things up, the 3rd party developer community, around the Mac especially, have done an amazing job of filling in the usability gaps that Apple has left. Should users choose these productivity enhancers, Apple has wisely seen fit to let the 3rd party devs keep doing their thing. The problem with Android, and the internet in general is that most people are not like us. They don’t want to seek out and try 5 different text editors and window managers, and text expanding solutions before finding the right one. They want to just use it most of the time, and they would prefer if the base implementation didn’t suck.
Geeks, and Google, we would prefer to just let the base interfaces and systems suck, since our partners are either going to replace them, or augment them. That is exactly what shouldn’t happen. Technical solutions should be like European Socialism… The government provides a generally acceptable set of services that everyone pays for, but it is possible to get better solutions. This provides something of a floor for service providers. Likewise, if you are developing a music solution for example, provide a playback solution that works with it first, then give the ability to plug into other services if the user prefers. That way, they aren’t left hanging initially.
Where I get frustrated with Apple, and where I continue to choose Google’s services, even they are less usable, are that they do not give me the latter solution. They provide a kick-ass initial implementation, but when I want to go and replace or augment it, particularly around the iPhone ecosystem, there are no options, in fact, they go out of the way to defeat any other option. If I wanted to use Apple’s music purchasing service, but I didn’t want to use the iTunes application, I am SOL. Apple feels that they make the best music playback solution as well as the best service. For some they may, but for me, I would much rather use AMAROK or something else to manage my music, inferior or no. If I chose the other way, I might want to use Amazon’s MP3 service for buying, but iTunes for managing. Apple should make that easy for me.
At some point, geeky companies like Google, and to their credit, they are starting to, need to create good baseline solutions that run up to, but stop short of competing with other products and services that are auxiliary to their primary product. Apple needs to accept that people may occasionally choose to do their own thing and allow them to.
I do not buy the assertion that in order to provide a cohesive solution you have to block all others. I feel that a system can be aesthetically pleasing and useful, as well as permissive. Karmic Koala I think gets really close to being there, but there are still too many places that I can get into with the OS where regular users would go WTF?!!?
This is why I am continually working on a new OS that as an ambition would combine the completeness and ease of use of the Mac OS, but honor the internet, as well as user choice. They are not mutually exclusive, and the only way to prove it is to build something that shows it. It is a huge amount of work, which is why the only way to do it is open source, but since you have to make clear choices for the user, at least in the initial state, some stuff just couldn’t be committed.
Basically, end-users won’t realize the cost of the choices they are making until they are gone. In a balkanized, app-store-ized internet, choices will be limited, prices will be high, and satisfaction will be generally low. That is where we are going, that is the choice that users are making because they can’t wrap their heads around the internet. It is our fault as geeks, and we are the only ones who can fix it. The average user is going to pick the shiniest and easiest widget. There is no reason we can’t make that.