Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The iPhone's Closed Process: Deja Vu All Over Again...

It's time for yet another Nerfherder iPhone rant. I've blasted Apple several times in the past for how they run their App Store and how they treat developers. But now I have a new ally backing up my narrative... the New York Times.

If you want a smartphone powered by Google’s Android software, you could get Motorola’s Droid 2 or its cousin, the Droid X. Then there is the Droid Incredible from HTC, the Fascinate from Samsung and the Ally from LG.

That’s just on Verizon Wireless. An additional 20 or so phones running Android are available in the United States, and there are about 90 worldwide.

But if your preference is an Apple-powered phone, you can buy — an iPhone.

That very short list explains in part why, for all its success in the phone business, Apple suddenly has a real fight on its hands.

Americans now are buying more Android phones than iPhones. If that trend continues, analysts say that in little more than a year, Android will have erased the iPhone’s once enormous lead in the high end of the smartphone market.

But this is not the first time Apple has found itself in this kind of fight, where its flagship product is under siege from a loose alliance of rivals selling dozens of competing gadgets.

In the early 1980s, the Macintosh faced an onslaught of competition from an army of PC makers whose products ran Microsoft software. The fight did not end well for Apple. In a few years, Microsoft all but sidelined Apple, and the company almost went out of business.

Can Apple, which insists on tight control of its devices, win in an intensely competitive market against rivals that are openly licensing their software to scores of companies? It faces that challenge not only in phones, but also in the market for tablet computers, where the iPad is about to take on a similar set of rivals.

Apple’s PC-versus-Mac battle almost put it out of business. Is it creating a similar one in the smartphone field?

The major issue under discussion here is something I've been writing about for two years already... Apple's closed processes. Now, I'm not completely delusional - I recognize the iPhone's enormous popularity and certainly don't believe Apple is even close to going out of business. However, the Times article is 100% correct in asserting that the the very same closed process that gave the iPhone such a huge early success is inevitably going to lead to its eventual demise.

The reason... It's the developers, stupid! As good as the iPhone is, its success over the long-term depends upon the all-important apps that drive it. But Apple has been so controlling in its app process, that developers like myself have either been driven away or are sitting on the edge of our seats just waiting for a commercially viable alternative platform. And now we have Android, which is soooooooo much friendlier to developers.

In sticking to their hardline closed culture, Apple has created a situation where there are now millions of developers innovating for Android, whereas a handful of employees still have to approve of innovations for iPhones. That's obviously unsustainable. Furthermore, computer science departments at universities have begun teaching classes in Android development at a much greater pace than for iPhones - again because Android makes it so much easier by eliminating an unbelievable number of layers of bureaucratic red tape. Thus, the second generation of app programmers will be trained on Android from the outset.

Let's all sing together in unison the advantages of an open approach. Mitchell Kapor is absolutely right... "Having a tightly controlled ecosystem, which is what Apple has, is a large short-term advantage and a large long-term disadvantage".

Talk to app developers and you know that the wheels are already in motion. The writing is on the wall. The question is not whether Apple's closed process can sustain its success beyond the short-term. It can't. The only question is, how long is the short-term?


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