The Experience versus the Expert, Part I
- October 21, 2010
- 2 Comments
There’s an ongoing debate between “open” and “closed”. Chris Dixon has written what I consider the most thoughtful blog on the subject, as it relates to phones and desktop PCs, which I referenced here.
This argument seems to come up any time Apple’s iPhone comes up because it is often referred to as a “walled garden”. Of course, this is nothing new for Apple. They were long criticized for keeping the hardware in-house rather than licensing their software to multiple hardware vendors, a la Microsoft. This is certainly one definition of “open” – giving a channel of manufacturers the ability to leverage your OS and build hardware around it. Another definition of “open” is releasing your source code for your operating system, a la Android, as Andy Rubin points out on twitter. But for Joe Hewitt of Facebook, neither iOS nor Android are open:
How does Android get away with the “open” claim when the source isn’t public until major releases, and no one outside Google can check in?
Compare the Android “open source” model to Firefox or Linux if you want to see how disingenuous that “open” claim is
Until Android is read/write open, it’s no different than iOS to me. Open source means sharing control with the community, not show and tell.
Clearly, from an OS-developer point of view, neither Android nor iOS (nor Windows, nor Mac OSX) meets the bar. (There’s a more complete writeup from Hewitt here)
From a Telecom Carrier point of view, Android meets the “open” claim: a carrier is free to jam pre-load it with proprietary software (good or bad). The handset manufacturers consider it open because they, too, can customize to their needs. Though, as Hewitt points out, they’re at significant disadvantage because they only have source code at major release points and have no way of getting their improvements back into the main branch of code so that it will survive into the next major release.
As an application developer, both Android and iOS are open at development time. For a small expenditure ($100 or less) I can equip my laptop with the software I need to develop my own Android or iOS application. I can even load the application on my phone to test it. I just can’t hack the OS on iOS. But if I’m writing applications, I don’t particularly *want* to hack the OS because I want my OS to look like everyone else’s (my customers’) OS. Open “source” for the OS is something that developers (the Experts) want.
Interestingly, I never heard people complain that RIM’s Blackberrys were “closed”. I suspect this is because the volume of developers for Blackberry was much lower and not in the mainstream (ie, Silicon Valley), and because the approval process for apps was dictated by each carrier in each geography, not by RIM. So the complaints weren’t targeted at RIM, but at carriers. Apple’s platform was clearly more open than RIMs in that the carriers couldn’t block your apps anymore. Apple had an approval process, but this process did not have a “negotiate payments” step in it – it was all about your application, not about holding you over the barrel for financial terms.
Apple (and Steve Jobs in particular) argue that the real debate is not open vs. closed, but “integrated versus fragmented”:
We see tremendous value in having Apple rather than our users’ be the systems integrator. We think this is a huge strength of our approach compared to Google’s. When selling to users who want their devices to just work, we believe Integrated will triumph Fragmented every time. And we also think our developers can be more innovative if they can target a singular platform rather than a hundred variants. They can put their time into innovative new features rather than testing on hundreds of different handsets.
So we are very committed to the integrated approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterize it as closed. 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.
I like Steve’s re-framing of the discussion, the poles in the debate. But since I’m not marketing for Apple, I think the real debate is between the Experience and the Expert. Balsillie of RIM complains that “We think many customers are getting tired of being told what to think by Apple.” But Apple and Jobs aren’t telling customers what to think, or developers. They’re explaining how Apple thinks – Apple has to defend against this notion of “closed” because the point (for Apple), isn’t to address the Expert- it is to address the Experience.
Apple is oriented around creating a user Experience that “just works”. They don’t always succeed, but that is what they’re after (if I had a nickel for every time someone at Apple, or NeXT before that, said “and it just works” I’d be a very rich man). Meanwhile, the Experts are worried. The Expert wants to be able to see the source code, compile it themselves, contribute to the project. The Expert wants to decompile and find the internal APIs and write apps that leverage those unpublished APIs. The Expert wants to be able to install unverified code and run it (perhaps his or her own code, developed on their own laptop).
I think many Experts are concerned that Apple is dumbing things down. But certainly no more than Mac OSX did – for the experts. For the Expert, I can still write my own apps and install them on my own phone. If I want to sell them, there is a walled-garden channel for doing that – but “buying” is something non-Experts do, and Apple has built a streamlined Buying process within their iOS ecosystem. Experts don’t like it, but non-Experts love it. (No viruses? I like it).
There’s also an argument that “open” proponents make, that open wins out over closed over time. But the real question is what is the target market? Open source projects have often won over experts, but there are fewer examples where “Open” has won in consumer markets where the average consumer just wants their products to work. Linux has made huge inroads in corporations as a trusted server operating system, and open source operating system cores makes up the core of many other product offerings (including Mac OS X). But Linux desktops have never made much progress (don’t believe me? read Gosling’s article “Desktop Linux: the Dream is Dead“). It is both an economic problem (free), and a user experience problem (too complicated for the average consumer).
Even in the corporate world, some industry titans are evaluating an integrated approach – in order to create a better experience for the customer. The thinking goes that they can offer better integrated products – better tested, simpler integration, and simpler maintenance. Of course, to make that strategy work, Ellison’s Oracle has to offer an integrated stack in which each component of the stack keeps pace with the industry’s cutting edge. With the ecosystem of suppliers that feed the computer industry, this is easier to do today than in the 1980’s, when the vertical components would (mostly) be manufactured in-house.
The focus on experience is something that many people understand… but that many more do not. I highly recommend reading Sachin Agarwal’s blog post about Posterous, recounting an argument with someone who thought Posterous was doomed due to smaller share, and fewer features, than some of its rivals:
I asked this person directly: do you have an iPhone? Nope. Do you use a Mac or a PC? PC. There you go. You don’t get it. Until you use an iPhone, a Mac, drive a BMW or Audi, you don’t even realize how great the experience can be or how much it can drive the success of a product.
[…] My entire life, I fought for Apple. I tried to get my friends to use Macs. But they didn’t. It’s not because they thought their PC was better than my Mac. It’s because they didn’t know something better could exist.
[…] And they don’t measure products by what they do, but by how well they do them. You won’t find a matrix where Apple compares their product to a competitor by feature. They measure products by the experience.
We’ll return to this topic again… focusing on BPM.