Google and Apple; same coin, different sides

Holy moly Google are a busy bunch. They throw Google Search at us, Google Maps, Google Earth, we have the new Google Chrome browser, the soon-to-be Google Chrome OS, we have Android, GMail, Buzz, Docs, TV, and I lose focus and head into a fuzzy trance-like state; clearly a case of Google-overload.

Apple are quite the contrast: they carefully mould one single item, and then proceed to wring every last piece of juice out of it. They hit the world with the first Mac back in 1984, built on it, and continued to focus focus focus to the present day. The iPod took centre stage seven years later and consequently got polished, honed, trimmed. And the iPhone has been no different, every year a new layer of lacquer, a new fresh smell. That’s not to say that the improvements have been mere aesthetics, not by a long shot. But on releasing each single product, their end-game has always been to not stop until perfection has been reached.

Nothing encapsulates the difference between the two companies more than their respective smartphone ecosystems, Google’s Android, and Apple’s iPhoneOS.

It seems clear that Google are, as with the rest of their work, throwing out their Android technology as fast and as far as it can possibly go, in as small an amount of time as possible. Updating it, re-updating it, improving it, followers be (somewhat) damned. And as a follower of technology, I must say there is something utterly alluring about this mentality. The speed of improvement is nothing short of exhilarating, with the perpetual promise of something new on waking up in the morning ever present. As a customer and a developer, after the initial rush of sparkle and glitz, well, not so much.

See, software development can be tough. Back in the days when every PC was different, with no fluffy Windows unification to rely on, developers had to cater for an infinite number of home and work setups. Sometimes your products worked, sometimes they didn’t and it was always a bit of a lottery as to which way things would fly. Trust me when I say, the hours spent trawling through the specs list on the side of a box were nothing compared to those spent taking software back for a refund because it still refused to install correctly. And Google are walking exactly the same path even as we speak. Sure, some might say fragmentation didn’t hurt the PC industry, but back then, the whole personal computing industry was in its infancy and people took whatever they could get. Now, they have alternatives.

And Apple’s iPhone really is one hell of an alternative. In stark contrast to Google they release one tightly controlled version of the handset every year, at the same time, in the same place. Everyone who buys one buys the exact same experience; the same operating system, the same upgrades, the same screen, built-in software, everything. Because of this there are certain unwritten guarantees for both the consumer and the developer: we won’t change anything overnight, there will be no surprises, your software will work and you will spend more time enjoying yourself. Simple and effective. Does this overt control that Apple provides make any of it less appealing? Are their predictable releases or updates any less exciting? Ask the swathes of people attending Apple’s sold-out WWDC on June 7th.

Yes, there may be some developers leaving Apple’s ecosystem citing too much control, but I think the sentiment is somewhat overblown. Really, for those with development history stretching back thirty years or so, we have never had it so good. To have a system so personable to end-users, and so predictable for developers, to know that virtually every system out there will run your software and give a near identical experience to everyone else, that’s simply too good to pass up, even on principled grounds.

On balance I don’t think there will be any losers in this competition. Customers win because they get choice, and really choosing either ecosystem will provide plenty of returns for hard-earned cash. The speed of Google’s progression will invariably slow as their system matures making life calmer and more predictable for developers and consumers alike, and by the time that happens it’ll likely be on an infinite number of handsets from an infinite number of providers around the globe. Apple will in all likelihood have to relinquish at least some of its control, thereby giving back some of what it had taken away, and appeasing many of the doom-sayers around the wires at the same time as selling huge numbers of their singularly focused handsets. Any distinct software or hardware improvements on either side will likely be duplicated by the other in short shrift.

So if you ever hear anyone arguing vehemently for one or the other, feel comfortable in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter which side faces upwards, they are both technological giants in their respective fields, and will, in all likelihood, forever be part of the same coin.

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