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More things in Heaven and Earth

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio; than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V

There’s suddenly a lot of conventional wisdom that says the rise and eventual dominance of Android is manifest, and inevitable. Some of these claims make dubious analogies to Windows’ defeat of the Mac in the 90’s, ramming square pegs through round holes to make the analogy stick (to wit: who are the hardware manufacturers this time, the handset makers or the carriers). It may indeed come to pass, but the reasoning behind these claims is pretty shallow thusfar.

Case in point: an Appcelerator survey covered in The Apple Blog story Devs Say Android is Future-Proof. iOS? Not So Much. The reasoning for Android’s perceived advantage? This article doesn’t mention Android’s license terms and widespread hardware adoption (maybe that’s taken for granted at this point?), and instead mentions only the appeal of writing apps for GoogleTV, a product that is not even out yet (meaning Adamson’s First Law applies), to say nothing of how many purported “interactive television revolutions” we’ve suffered through over the decades (Qube, videotex, WebTV, Tru2Way, etc.). Maybe it’ll be the next big thing, but history argues otherwise.

In the 90’s, the rise of Java seemed an obvious bet. Applets would make web pages far more compelling than static pages and lengthy form submits, and application developers would surely be better off with garbage collection and strong typing than with C and C++. Java was so sure to be big, that Microsoft threw the full force of its dirty tricks machine at it, while Apple exposed most of the Mac’s unique libraries to Java bindings (including, at various times, QuickTime, Cocoa, Core Audio, speech, and more). But it didn’t work out that way: Java on the browser was displaced by JavaScript/Ajax, and the early attempts to write major desktop applications in Java were unmitigated disasters, with the Netscape Navigator port abandoned, and Corel’s Java version of Word Perfect Office was buried almost immediately after it was released. 1996’s sure bet was a has-been (or a never-was) by 2001.

If you think about it, the same thing happened a few years ago with AIR. With the YouTube-powered rise of Flash, AIR seemed a perfect vehicle to bring hordes of Flash developers to the desktop. Everyone knew it would be big. Except it wasn’t. AIR applications are rare today, perhaps rarer even than Java. Admittedly, I only remembered of AIR’s existence because I needed to download the AIR-powered Balsamiq application for a client this week… exception that proves the rule, I guess?

My point in all this is that the conventional wisdom about platform success has a tendency to be selective in considering what factors will make or break a platform. Licensing, corporate support, community, and of course the underlying technology all play a part. Android is greatly enhanced by the fact that Google puts talented people behind it and then gives it away, but if carriers then use it to promote their own applications and crapware over third-party apps (or cripple them, as they did with JavaME), then Android’s advantage is nil. On the other hand, Apple’s iOS may have remarkable technology, but if their model requires using their corporate strength to force carriers to be dumb pipes, then they may only be able to get iPhone on weaker carriers, which will turn off consumers and retard growth of the platform.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say how this will all play out, but assuming an Android victory based on the presumed success of currently non-existent tablets and set top boxes is surely an act of faith… which probably accounts for all the evangelism.

So why am I on iOS now? Is it because I have some reason to think that it will “win”? Not at all. Mostly it’s because I like the technology. In the mid 2000’s, when user-facing Java was in terminal decline, I tried to learn Flash and Flex to give myself more options, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like it. It just didn’t click for me. But as I got into Cocoa and then the iPhone SDK, I found I liked the design patterns, and the thoughtfulness of all of it. The elegance and power appealed to me. Being a media guy, I also appreciate the platform’s extraordinary support for audio and video: iOS 4 has three major media APIs (AV Foundation, Core Audio, and Media Player), along with other points of interest throughout the stack (video out in UIKit, the low-level abstractions of Core Media, spatialized sound in OpenAL, high-performance DSP functions in the Accelerate framework, etc.). The android.media package is quite limited by comparison, offering some canned functionality for media playback and a few other curious features (face recogniation and dial tone generation, for example), but no way to go deeper. When so many media apps for Android are actually server-dependent, like speech-to-text apps that upload audio files for conversion, it says to me there’s not much of a there there, at least for the things I find interesting.

Even when I switched from journalism and failed screenwriting to programming and book-writing in the late 90’s, at the peak of the Microsoft era, I never considered for a second the option of learning Windows programming and adopting that platform. I just didn’t like their stuff, and still don’t. The point being that I, and you, don’t have to chase the market leader all the time. Go with what you like, where you’ll be the most productive and do the most interesting work.

There’s a bit in William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade (just looked in my copy, but couldn’t find the exact quote), where the famous screenwriter excuses himself from a story meeting, quitting the project by saying “Look, I am too old, and too rich, to have to put up with this shit.” I like the spirit of that. Personally, I may not be rich, but I’m certainly past the point where I’m willing to put up with someone else’s trite wisdom, or the voice of the developer mob, telling me where I should focus my skills and talents.

Comments (2)

  1. Computer world has the story in greater depth, including this rich quote: “The fact that developers view Android-based tablets so favorably — even before any are actually in consumers’ hands — means that the category will be “another device show-down” between Apple and Google.”

    What’s really going on here? Do developers hate Apple’s nefarious skullduggery so much that they’re engaging in wishful thinking about Android tables that don’t even exit yet? Is anyone seriously betting their career on the ascendance of the Mythical Android Tablet? Yikes, good luck with that.

  2. Another nice reply to the “open and commoditzed will always win” mindset, from O’Reilly of all places: Apple’s segmentation strategy, and the folly of conventional wisdom.

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