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The Cell Phone Wars

Slate has an interesting comparison of Apple’s very closed model with the iPhone and Google’s very open model with Android:

In the two months since the App Store's launch, Apple has rejected several programs for seemingly arbitrary reasons that it won't disclose. Developers havegrumbled about this capriciousness, but until now they've had no real alternative—iPhone and iPod Touch owners have already downloaded 100 million apps through the App Store, making Apple the Wal-Mart of mobile software.

And then along came Sergey Brin and Larry Page. On Tuesday, the Google founders unveiled the G1, the first phone based on Google's new mobile operating system, Android. The phone, which will go on sale in late October, is manufactured by the Taiwanese company HTC and is being offered exclusively through T-Mobile, but Google's software will soon make its way to other phones and other carriers across the globe. Google says that Android embodies principles of "radical openness." Unlike Apple, the company will let developers create any mobile apps they please. Google has also persuaded carriers to allow users to run any apps they like—including voice-over-IP software like Skype, which carriers have traditionally resisted because it lets you make calls without running up cellular minutes.

Watching Google and Apple carve out space in the mobile business, one can hardly avoid thinking that history is repeating itself. In the 1970s and '80s, Apple created the first great personal computers. But because Apple closed its platform, it was IBM, Dell, HP, and especially Microsoft that reaped the benefits of Apple's innovations. The Mac's operating system ran only on Mac computers; Windows ran on lots of lots of different companies' hardware. This made non-Apple computers both cheaper than Apple's machines—competition between hardware manufacturers pushed down prices—and more useful, as third-party developers flocked to write must-have programs for Windows. Apple seems to be following a similar restrictive strategy with the iPhone.

Google's Android OS is "open" in two distinct ways. First, Google has released the software under an open-source license, allowing hardware manufacturers to customize Android for different phones. Second, Android is open to third-party apps; Google and the carriers will make sure that apps do not violate the law or harm people's phones, but other than that, they promise to impose few restrictions.

There's [nothing] defensible about Apple's rejections of iPhone apps. It got rid of I Am Rich, a $1,000 program that did nothing, and Pull My Finger, a fart-joke app, for "limited utility"—which would be understandable if so many iPhone Apps weren't pretty limited. (How did Apple decide that a program that turns your phone into a flashlight is more useful than a program that turns your phone into a whoopee cushion?) Apple also rejected a comic book app called Murderdrome because its contents were too violent—even though it offers extremely violent movies in the iTunes Store. And it blocked an e-mail client because it competed with the iPhone's built-in e-mail app, a transparently anti-competitive move.

Apple seems to be pursuing a strategy of just-open-enough—permissive enough to keep programmers writing code and to keep customers buying software but still locked-down enough to let Apple control the platform's larger direction.

It’s hard for me to defend Apple on this one, mostly because they’re not being transparent about what is and is not allowed. And the anticompetitive nature of not allowing a third party email application should be obvious to anyone, even the iCabal. That’s just not right, no matter what your concerns are. I certainly don’t want to be locked into Apple’s disastrous MobileMe/ system. Who would?

The Android platform, of course, is interesting specifically because there are no restrictions. It’s even doubly interesting to me personally because I happen to use a lot of Google services, but let’s be honest here: Android will be a better platform for all non-Apple services, specifically because Google won’t move to block a Hotmail-compatible native email application like Apple will, or whatever.

Of course, this is all slice-in-time stuff. I’m not switching to T-Mobile just to get a G1. But I do see an Android phone in m future, unless Apple-or Microsoft—wakes up and does this right thing.

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