As a teenager, I was a die-hard Apple fanboy. The boy part is obvious. The fan part was the result of having and hacking an Apple II. Naturally, I was hugely excited about the arrival of first the Lisa (remember those?) and then the Macintosh. While I enjoyed programming the Macintosh — all the way through college — I was frustrated with its unfriendliness towards hackers. My Apple II had been heavily modded with all sorts of extras. This was easily possible because the lid of the computer was attached with velcro and the motherboard had not only card slots but also various jumpers that could easily be wired. The rejection of hackers combined with the refusal to let others build compatible hardware eventually made the Macintosh more expensive and less functional than the PC. For many years Apple was marginalized and I sadly used PCs and Windows.

Now a similar battle is brewing. Apple has an early lead with the iPhone. Once again, Apple is rejecting hackers and preventing others from building compatible hardware and/or running the iPhone version of OSX and iPhone apps. The contender this time appears to be Google’s Android (definitely not Blackberry, which is also hacker unfriendly with a horrendous on-boarding process for developers and has not managed to get others to embrace its OS). So the burning question is: will Apple’s history repeat? Will Apple squander its lead by insisting on tight control and gradually becoming isolated with a more open platform succeeding instead? With someone as high profile as Joe Hewitt calling it quits and specifically citing Apple’s policies for doing so, it seems a good time to ask this question.

Some things are clearly the same, such as Apple’s desire to tightly control the user experience. But some things are very different and so the outcome is far from clear:

  • Apple has its own history to learn from
  • Apple has prepared for a full fight all the way down to the chip level by recruiting chip designers
  • Apple is way bigger and way more powerful
  • There are more and more efficient contract manufacturers
  • User experience matters more for personal usage than for business usage (one is voluntary, the other often mandated)
  • Phones are an expression of personal style, so looks matter and Apple has that nailed
  • Android can’t reach consumers directly but has to contend with carriers who want to control their customers possibly more than Apple does
  • Again because of carriers, Android faces an early risk of fracturing into incompatible devices (already many different screens to deal with)

For all of these reasons (there are probably more), this will be an epic battle. Apple may succeed (possibly by opening up more) or Android may come up an open winner. In either case, I am optimistic that the ultimate beneficiaries will be end users and developers. As with any battle though, there will be a lot of innocent casualties along the way.

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