Apple's iPhone is closed. Google's G1 is open. Which is better?

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Sept. 25 2008 5:41 PM

The Cell Phone Wars

Apple's iPhone is closed. Google's G1 is open. Which is better?

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

In August, a programmer named Alex Sokirynsky wrote a clever app to let iPhone users stream or download podcasts straight from their phones. (Ordinarily, the iPhone can play only the podcasts you've downloaded through your computer.) Sokirynsky submitted the program, called Podcaster, for inclusion in Apple's iPhone App Store—the only way for third-party developers to distribute their programs to iPhone users. Weeks passed; Sokirynsky heard nothing from Apple. Then, on Sept. 11, the company sent him a note. Apple had rejected Podcaster because "it duplicates the functionality of the podcast section of iTunes," an Apple rep told Sokirynsky.

Apple's explanation didn't make any sense. The iPhone App Store carries many programs—for instance, calculators and instant-messenger apps—that mimic desktop software. And anyway, why is "duplicating functionality" so bad—isn't that the soul of competition? Sokirynsky's program didn't seem to violate any written guidelines that Apple had put out for iPhone apps. So why was Apple banning Podcaster?

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Nobody knows. 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 have grumbled 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. Already, some developers have threatened to move to Android; Sokirynsky says he's building an Android version of Podcaster. Hasn't Steve Jobs learned anything in the last 30 years?

Well, maybe he has—and maybe he's betting that these days, "openness" is overrated. For one thing, an open platform is much more technically complex than a closed one. Your Windows computer crashes more often than your Mac computer because—among many other reasons—Windows has to accommodate a wider variety of hardware. Dell's machines use different hard drives and graphics cards and memory chips than Gateway's, and they're both different from Lenovo's. The Mac OS, meanwhile, has to work on just a small range of Apple's rigorously tested internal components—which is part of the reason it can run so smoothly. And why is your PC glutted with viruses and spyware? The same openness that makes a platform attractive to legitimate developers makes it a target for illegitimate ones.

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. While this is just what developers like Alex Sokirynsky want to hear, it's not obvious that this level of openness will be good for users. Will a game that was developed for a phone with a relatively fast processor crash on a phone with a slower processor? What if you buy an app that requires a full keyboard, but you're running a phone without one—how will Android respond? Engadget pointed out that even before its public launch, Android's Marketplace is full of programs that don't adhere to a single design paradigm, making for a "sea of mediocrity." Is that the danger of running a store without a rigorous approval process?