Steve Jobs’ anti-Android manifesto dissected

Apple-blog-thingAs you’ve probably seen, Steve Jobs made a personal appearance on Apple’s earnings call last night in which he denounced Android and Google’s “open” approach. Here’s a complete transcript of that four-minute section of the call, with some of my own interjections.

Steve Jobs’ anti-Android manifesto dissected

“Google loves to characterise Android as open”

“Google loves to characterise Android as open, and iOS and iPhone as closed. We find this a bit disingenuous, and clouding the real difference between our two approaches. The first thing most of us think about when we hear the word ‘open’ is Windows, which is available on a variety of devices.”

I don’t believe there’s a single person in the world for whom the word “open” instinctively suggests Windows. Clearly, Jobs is trying to finesse the terms of the argument right at the outset, so he can focus on what he wants to talk about – a theme we might call “choice versus simplicity” – and ignore the rest of the issues that relate to openness. Coming one sentence after he’s accused Google of being disingenuous, that’s a bit rich. Indeed, Google VP Andy Rubin has responded with a terse tweet indicating one significant implication of “open” that Jobs overlooks – freely available source code.

“Android is very fragmented”

“Unlike Windows, however, where most PCs have the same user interface and the run the same apps, Android is very fragmented. Many Android OEMs, including the two largest, HTC and Motorola, install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience. The user’s left to figure it all out. Compare this with iPhone, where every handset works the same.”

There’s some truth to this. Android devices do ship with a range of interfaces and OS versions, so there is a certain amount of “figuring out” involved in choosing the right one. But the enforced uniformity of the iPhone isn’t exactly great for the user either — innovation (which Jobs normally professes to love) is driven by choice and competition, not by top-down, take-it-or-leave it economics.

On another note, it’s not quite right to say that most PCs have the same user interface: in 2010 you’ll find a fair old mixture of XP, Vista and Windows 7 in homes and businesses, and though they’re superficially more similar than the various Android wrappers on the market, the differences run much deeper. Evidently Jobs is trying to build up an image of Android’s “fragmented” nature as something exceptional; but, as we’ll see, he’s overplaying his hand.

“More than a hundred different versions of Android”

“Twitter client ‘TwitterDeck’ recently launched their app for Android. They reported that they had to contend with more than a hundred different versions of Android software on 244 different handsets. The multiple hardware and software iterations present developers with a daunting challenge. Many Android apps work only on selected Android handsets running selected Android versions. And this is for the hand… this is for handsets that have been shipped less than 12 months ago. Compare this with iPhone, where there are two versions of the software, the current and the most recent predecessor, to test against.”

That’s “TweetDeck”, but yes, if you look at the published figures from the TweetDeck beta programme, you can see that testers did indeed try the application on 108 different versions of the Android OS. The developers even comment on the platform’s “extreme fragmentation.”

But what Jobs must know — because the figures are clearly broken down on the page — is that of those 108 OS versions, more than a hundred were unofficial “homebrew” builds, with names like “Squidly” and “noobnl’s Radioactive FroYo”… and they represent less than 1% of beta programme participants. More than 99% of testers were using regular Android 1.6, 2.1 or 2.2 firmware.

So when Jobs talks about developers having to “contend with more than a hundred different versions of Android software”, he is – to put it kindly – talking through his hat. There are three major Android versions to test against (of which two are fundamentally very similar) — and what TweetDeck found was that their code also ran fine on more than a hundred custom OS builds, across 244 different devices. What Jobs wants to be a demonstration of widespread compatibility problems is in fact precisely the opposite.

Indeed, far from facing a “daunting challenge”, the TweetDeck team evidently found it rewarding to develop for such a vibrant platform, describing Android as “hackalicious” and writing that “it’s pretty cool to have our app work on such a wide variety of devices and Android OS variations.”

(TweetDeck developer Iain Dodsworth has since directly rejected Jobs’ insinuations on his own Twitter feed: “Did we at any point say it was a nightmare developing on Android?” he asks. “Errr nope, no we didn’t. It wasn’t.”)

“At least four app stores on Android”

“In addition to Google’s own app Marketplace, Amazon, Verizon and Vodafone have all announced that they are creating their own app stores for Android. So there will be at least four app stores on Android, which customers must… must search among to find the app they want, and developers will need to work with to distribute their apps and get paid. This is gonna be a mess for both users and developers. Contrast this with Apple’s integrated app store, which offers users the easiest-to-use, largest app store in the world, preloaded on every iPhone. Apple’s app store has over three times as many apps as Google’s Marketplace, and offers developers one-stop shopping to get their apps to market easily and to get paid swiftly.”

There’s the germ of a good point in here: if some developers sign up exclusively with Verizon and others go to Amazon, you could in theory end up having to shop around to find a particular application. But Jobs is jumping the gun, assuming the worst before the third-party app stores have even opened their doors. And if things do get messy, as he predicts, they can always be cleared up through a central “meta-Marketplace” portal. As it happens, the company behind Android has a little bit of previous when it comes to collating and organising links.

Indeed, the competition arising from multiple stores should work to everyone’s benefit. Glass-half-empty Jobs bewails the idea of developers having to deal with more than one distributor, but you show me a freelance who wouldn’t rather have four clients than one. Especially when the one is holding all the cards, as with Apple. I don’t think I need to explain the several reasons why Jobs’ claim that Apple’s app distribution model helps developers “get their apps to market easily” sticks in the throat.

“Open systems don’t always win”

“You know, even if Google were right, and the real issue is closed versus open, it is worthwhile to remember that open systems don’t always win. Take Microsoft’s ‘PlaysForSure’ music strategy, which used the PC model, which Android uses as well, of separating the software components from the hardware components. Even Microsoft finally abandoned this open strategy in favour of copying Apple’s integrated approach with their Zune player, unfortunately leaving their OEMs empty-handed in the process. Google flirted with this integrated approach with their Nexus One phone.”

It’s interesting to see Jobs refer openly to “winning” — he often prefers to talk in the more conciliatory terms of “what’s best for the customer.” But his example of an “open system” is simply weird: media players and music services had to jump through numerous non-negotiable technical and political hoops before they were allowed to use the PlaysForSure brand. And ascribing its failure to its supposed openness is dubious too: after all, Windows – which to Steve Jobs is apparently the ne plus ultra of the “open” model – is doing all right.

“The user isn’t forced to be the systems integrator”

“In reality, we think the open versus closed argument is just a smokescreen, to try and hide the real issue, which is: what’s best for the customer … ”

Ah, there it is.

“… fragmented versus integrated. We think Android is very, very fragmented, and becoming more fragmented by the day. And as you know, Apple strives for the integrated model, so that the user isn’t forced to be the systems integrator. 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 trump fragmented every time.”

As noted above, the fragmentation to which Jobs refers is almost wholly illusory. But as a user of an Android phone, I’m nevertheless happy that I have the choice to be my own “systems integrator” – taking that to mean (as it appears to in Jobs’ rather overblown terms) the person who installs the operating system. And, at the same time, I’ve never for one second felt like I was being “forced” into that role.

In fact, just to make sure I haven’t missed something, I asked news editor Nicole Kobie whether her HTC Wildfire had ever tried to pressure her into integrating any systems. “Er, no,” came the expected reply. “It’s never actually required me to think to use it yet.” What was that about devices that “just work”?

“A singular platform rather than a hundred variants”

“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.”

Again with the “hundreds of different handsets”. It’s becoming clear that “hundreds” is one of the key words that Jobs wants us to associate with Android – the other main one being, obviously, “fragmented” – so he repeats it just to hammer it into our heads. It’s an ingenious image, because normally something in “hundreds of fragments” would be broken beyond repair.

“We are confident that [we] will triumph”

“So we are very committed to the integrated approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterise it as closed. And we are confident that it will triumph over Google’s fragmented approach, no matter how many times Google tries to characterise it as open.”

And so Jobs’ thoughts on Android come to a close, with a turn of rhetoric that, slightly surprisingly, calls to mind the grandiloquent architects of the Eastern bloc.

Except that, perhaps, it’s not surprising. After all, his vision of triumph is the collapse of the free market – in applications and mobile devices, at least – and the rise of a glorious conformity, in which the individual is freed from the confusion of choice through the paternal direction of an autocratic central power. And to further that end, he’s willing to twist words, distort figures, spread propaganda that he must know to be untrue and openly denounce his enemies.

It would be funny, if it weren’t a tragic commentary on power and idealism, to reflect that this is the man behind the “1984” advert. I wonder if he realises the bitter irony, not only in his comments, but in the forum he chose to air them: the quintessentially capitalist institution of the quarterly earnings call.

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