My good friend and esteemed colleague has posted his thoughts on “Why I think the iPhone is Important”. 1 He adopts the opinion that “the big advantage Apple has with the iPhone is that they control the entire product, top to bottom.” He compares the iPhone to the Android platform and says, “iPhone » android => Apple!”

Okay, so that quote was actually me summing up the argument.

I agree with his assessment that the iPhone has a great user experience. Everything is pretty sharp. Its components feel like they belong together. Things just flow.

But it is still a closed platform. One where you cannot publish software without Apple’s acceptance. One where usage of the device outside of Apple’s vision is prohibited. One where the power of a single entity has control over the utility of the platform.

This may be good for “user experience” but is horrible for the user. Is this an acceptable compromise?

If the user is limited in the usefulness of a device, knowingly or not, the user loses. There is no reason for Apple to be authoritarian on this matter. Users deserve a choice to do what they would like with their own devices.

Could you imagine what computing would have been like had Microsoft said, “We will give the masses this platform called Windows, but we will control the vertical stack. We will not allow external innovation. We will not allow other people to be creative, unless that creativity is synergistic with our platform strategy. We will control computers ’top to bottom’.”

This too might have been good for “user experience.” But, this would have been horrible for the user. (We would be forced to use IE. There would be no such thing as Firefox.) This would have been a very bad thing for personal computing in general. And it could have happened. It did not because market forces did not give Microsoft the gift of inventing the hardware.

This is what Apple is doing with the iPhone.

That Apple created its hardware base does not make it any different. This authoritarian control will be a very bad thing for mobile computing.

I’d agree that Android is flawed for various reasons. It’s hard to program for a device that doesn’t exist. And it’s hard to program for multiple types of devices.

This was one of the downfalls of the Windows CE development back in the early 2000s. Multiple processors, multiple screen sizes, and multiple input methods all made it difficult for a programmer to appeal to a wider audience. Standardization is a powerful thing; Apple has de facto standardized its hardware platform, allowing software developers to be able to predict usage patterns.

This is kind of like the rest of the computer industry: A programmer knows, with some exceptions, that the person using his software will have a screen that is wider than it is tall, have buttons to press to input characters, and have a method to move a cursor around on the screen.

This standardization does not mean that the user has to sacrifice user experience. Nor does it mean the user must sacrifice the freedom of choice. Standardization at lower levels is a very powerful force that pushes developers to creativity. Standardization could have occurred at the hardware level and then Apple could have provided an open interface for alternative operating systems and programs. Apple could have invented the physical parts, but leave the bits in memory to be manipulated by the end user as he or she pleases. Apple could have given their operating system and their software as the default choice, but allowed users to chose otherwise.

I sit here typing this post on a Apple MacBook Pro running Linux 2.6.24 in a text editor whose source code I can download and change. Apple created the physical parts but I own the information. Does this use of their hardware design harm Apple or Apple’s brand in any way?

No. It allows them to have another happy customer, while all of the customers who choose the default on their systems being happy as well. This is how it could be on the iPhone.

Give people the choice. Never think that a closed platform is an advantage.

Recently, Jeremy Clarkson began a segment on Top Gear about the new Ferrari Scuderia with, “Do you know what’s wrong with Ferrari at the moment? They’re nerdy. It’s all about the plumbing and the wiring and the computer systems. When I drive a Ferrari, I want it to be all about passion. And excitement.”

Then he drives it. He ended the segment with, “I cannot tell you how happy it makes me feel to be driving a proper Ferrari again.”

A flashy user interface, cohesive user experience, and an open platform are not mutually exclusive goals.

  1. As in any post that ends in “Shabowza,” it is very intellectually deep and only fit for the philosopher-king. ↩︎