The App Platform War to End All Wars (We Wish)

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assisinated, leading to the outbreak one month later, of WWI ~ the so-called war to end all wars. That war lasted only four years. The computing platform war has been raging since the late 1970’s, when the first PC was being assembled from piece parts and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still teenagers. But the two men had very different ideas about how computers should work, starting the “platform war” that rages to this day. And it affects you, because apps are now the battlefield.

Apple’s Shangrila, or the Walled Garden

Job’s idea is sometimes referred to as the “walled garden.” I compare his model to a neighborhood with strict rules about what type of house you can build, how big it can be, what color you paint it, whether you can hang your laundry out or not, if you can have a dog, and so forth. Many such neighborhoods exist in the United States, and they are valued for their ability to achieve and maintain a high level of quality, that is, the quality those who hold power deem is good. I lived in such a neighborhood once, and we forced a homeowner to repaint his brand new house because it was “too yellow.” Ugh!

In technical terms, Apple’s model, or “systems architecture,” is referred to as “closed,” and if you build an app for their devices, like the iPhone, then you must abide by their rules. While Apple’s rules are resolute, we have them to thank for the generally high quality of the apps found in the Apple app store, and for the fact that Apple products rarely suffer from computer viruses. Afterall, walls not only keep good things in, they keep bad things out.

Microsoft’s Bohemian Paradise

In stark comparison, Bill Gate’s idea was to create the wild, wild, west of the computing world, a Bohemian paradise where anything goes. Using the neighborhood metaphor, in Gate’s neigborhood you can build any kind of house you want, even a purple one shaped liked a shoe, and keep chickens in the backyard. The resulting systems architecture is called “open,” for obvious reasons, and it dominated the computing world for decades, making Microsoft the most powerful company, and Gates the richest man.

Technical people, who hate being shackled and love to tinker under the hood, love open systems. It gives them almost unlimited control over what they build and how they build it. Bad guys love open systems too, as it lets them easily gain access to the deepest parts of your computer, which is why open PCs (and not closed Macs) are subject to a plethera of computer viruses.

But in 2004, a bomb exploded. The iPhone, a closed device, was released, becoming the first computer to gain broad acceptance, not as a computer, but as a consumer electronic device. Because Apple was carefully controlling the iPhone’s development from inside their walled garden, the device was beautifully designed and as easy-to-use as a toaster. Finally, after years of promise, a computer that was elegant, highly portable, intuitive, and insanely easy-to-use! Naturally, the iPhone and its offspring, like the iPad, are much loved and sell by the gazillions. Hooray for the consumer!

Hackers Put Out

But hackers (technical geeks) were befuddled. When they went to open the iPhone’s hood and start their tinkering, to which they were accustomed, they found the hood locked. Apple had locked it, and it is still locked to this day. God had banished the disoppedient from the garden and placed an angel wielding a flaming sword at its entrance, so that no one may enter. If developers want to build an app for the iPhone, Apple’s requires they use a hard-to-learn programming language (called Objective-C) and follow Apple’s rules. Dei iudicium (“By the judgement of God”).

Because Objective-C is hard-to-learn, programmers fluent in the language are relatively rare and command a high price for their services. An app for the iPhone can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, and maintaining it is then only done by the expensive specialist, who may or may not be available. This situtation created an opportunity for an open systems architecture for mobile devices, but it was not to be Microsoft who exploited the opportunity.

A Secret, Diabolical Plan to Rule the World. Muahahaha!

In a secret laboratory, deep in a hidden corner of Silicon Valley, a handful of skilled engineers and programmers plotted a siege on Apple’s walled garden. The year was 2003, and the only thing known about this enigmatic crew was that they were building an operating system (OS) for mobile devices. The result was Android.

In a bold end run around Microsoft, who struggled without success for years to market their OS for mobile appliances, Google aquired Android in 2005 and in short order became the most widely used platform for mobile phone applications, eclipsing Apple. Android was unveiled in 2007 along with the founding of the Open Handset Alliance: a consortium of hardware, software, and telecommunication companies devoted to advancing open standards for mobile devices. Note the word “open.” Android is no walled garden ~ it is the wild, wild west all over again, but this time with Google is wearing the big hat instead of Microsoft.

The first Android-powered phone was sold in October 2008. By October 2012, there were approximately 700,000 apps available for Android, and the estimated number of applications downloaded from Google Play, Android’s primary app store, was 25 billion.

The Walled Garden is Under Siege!

Eclipsing Apple, did you say? But isn’t Apple’s app platform the king of the hill? Yes, but only in the US, and only with more affluent mobile device owners. In developing countries, like China, Android phones outsell iPhones something like 6:1. So if you intend on attracting smartphone tourists to your location from outside the US, and especially from China, then you had better plan on deploying your tourism app on Android, as well as Apple.

Well that creates a bit of a problem, doesn’t it, because those two don’t play nicely together. They don’t share toys, hell, they don’t even speak the same language. If you build an app that is native to the Apple platform (a so-called “native” app), then it won’t run on Android’s native platform. In fact, it’s worse than that. As mortal enemies, Apple and Google intentionally try to trip each other up, which makes life difficult for those of us who are tying to build apps.

But a white knight, on a white horse, has appeared on the horizon! Will he save us from almost certain peril?

More on that in my next post.

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One thought on “The App Platform War to End All Wars (We Wish)

  1. […] stories, your tours, your insight, wit and charm…must play well on any device, regardless of type or manufacturer. Yesterday it was the web. Today it is the mobile web, or the native app. Soon it will be Google […]

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