Like it or not, it’s one or the other. Either someone controls the whole system and enforces a standard, like Apple with the iPhone. Or folks are allowed to do what they want, and differences in opinion end up leading to multiple versions in circulation, like Android. There are shades in between, but those are your two extremes. What weirds me out currently however is that the same people seem to complain about both. They complain about Apple exerting control over their own platform, and they also complain about Android being fragmented. You’ve gotta pick one, like it or not.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. There is another option. You could, you know, compete. It takes is a few hundred million dollars, awesome user experience designers, pushing the boundary of what handheld hardware can do, writing a platform from the ground up, capturing the imagination of developers, and delivering that solution via a channel that’s struggling with its own identity crisis. Not many folks seem to be taking that route however. Odd…. Plenty of folks willing to piss and moan about it, but just not enough to get people over that hurdle into action.
Why not? Cause the “horrible tyranny” of the app store is something that people have opted into. If the tyranny were really that horrible people would stop buying iPhones. Period. So even though there are a bunch of vocal people whose agendas aren’t served by the current state of the iPhone ecosystem, the only reason that ecosystem has enjoyed the success it has is that it does hit the sweet spot for users. And even the folks who whine the loudest about how horrible the App Store system is usually can’t stand to walk away from a platform that actually serves their needs. Take a wander to one of the Adobe offices at some point and count the number of iPhones you see. Quite a few it turns out.
On the other side of the fence, yes you always get some degree of fragmentation with an open system. But the severity of that fragmentation is a function of how well any one individual branch serves the needs of end users. Once one branch starts doing a fantastic job of serving users well and attracts more users, that starts to attract more developers. More developers means more applications, which gets more users. And as long as the folks behind that one branch can execute well, you get this nice virtuous feedback cycle going. In theory. A good place to see it actually working is the Linux kernel itself. Anyone can fork off major versions if they want to, but generally no one does cause Linus is fantastically good at his job.
However, thus far, Android is not a fantastic place to see it happening. There’s no clear strong front-runner in terms of device manufacturer and sub-version of Android, so it feels like a lot of fragmentation. If one of those versions had 95% of the market however, no one would really care about the “fragmentation”, they would build to the successful version. That’s not up to the developers and manufacturers to mandate however (cause then we would be back to tyranny, right, which is what we’re explicitly trying to avoid), the success of one particular version needs to be chosen by end users. So how do you get to that point. Well, it’ll probably take a few hundred million dollars of backing, awesome user experience and design, top notch hardware, etc…
Over the last three years we’ve finally managed to drag mobile out of the rut its been stuck in for a decade (Okay, Apple dragged the whole ecosystem out of the rut damnit – I personally had little to do with it, though I would have loved to). But now the conversations seem to be cycling back to the same issues that got this thing gridlocked in the first place – channel control and fragmentation. I hope we’re not falling into yet another rut. Maybe whoever ends up buying the smoking remains of Palm can turn that into yet another viable option?
Although I hate to admit it, it might be that mobile just isn’t really ready for genuine evolution yet. There’s a market evolution theory says that initially technological solutions demand a tightly integrated environment so that the end product can be of high enough quality to serve the general public. Then, eventually, the product is good enough that it actually over-serves most of the public. At that point modular solutions and customization are the name of the game, as users mix and match what they want depending on individual needs.
Everything is setup for the next phase of evolution to be possible. Linux and Symbian providing open operating systems, Modu and Bug Labs providing hardware platforms, and folks like DoubleTwist providing a media and device management tool. All the parts are there. In theory we should be in a great position to see the major changes that happened over the past three years to accelerate and continue to roll along. But it’s not happening. Makes me feel all itchy. Like I’m missing something that I shouldn’t be missing.