iPod touch nay-sayers: shackled by “gadget thinking”
Mon, Oct 1, 07
Over at Russell Beattie’s Weblog Aw, gee… Apple doesn’t love those hacks:
Well, update 1.1.1 has come, and we now know that in fact, the new cool open Apple is still the old insane closed Apple of old. There is no “benevolent Apple” which is looking the other way while hackers “extend” their platform, there is simply the dictatorial Apple of old. This is shown quite clearly by both the latest update which hammered all the iPhone hacks out there, and by the iPod Touch, which has ZERO real reason not be an open platform. [Emphasis added]
The implied criticism here is that, unlike the iPhone, the iPod touch is not even tied to an exclusive AT&T lock-in, and since it runs a version of OS X, Apple ought to open it up to third party developers. While the implied prediction is that if Apple doesn’t create an open platform the gadget will fail.
No one really knows what Apple will do or if the iPod touch will fail. But we’ve all heard a thousand times by now that “the old insane closed Apple of old” is making a big mistake by not opening it up…again.
In reality, making a gadget open to third party developers doesn’t necessarily lead to commercial success. The history of mobile devices are chockfull of open and perfectly horrible flops. Not opening up doesn’t preclude market place success either. Look no further than the closed iPod, one of the most spectacular success stories in consumer electronics ever. In other words, “open vs. closed” is not a strong commercial success indicator, as iPhone/iPod nay-sayers would have us believe.
Why keep it closed?
There may be many reasons why Apple has not yet opened up the iPod touch or the iPhone:
- Creating an SDK for public APIs for a device Apple has never done previously is difficult, so the company may not be ready yet.
- Apple said that with the iPhone it was adding a third leg to its Mac and iPod business lines and the process would take a few years. In fact, Apple’s booking iPhone revenue on a subscription basis over the life of the phone contract.
- Apple may be waiting for second or third generation devices or the ending of its exclusive partnerships in order to open up.
- Before opening up, it may be working with a few key third parties such as Adobe or Google to facilitate sub-platform development based on Flash or Gears, which may require dealing with additional power/memory management or local-caching/storage issues.
- Apple might not yet be finished with the core library of gestures, including the often requested cut & paste, or UI controls that it wants third party developers to adopt.
- The upcoming Leopard may have OS-level implications for Apple’s mobile devices which the company may have felt not ready to divulge months ahead of its introduction in October.
- A larger device, the “iTablet” whose rumors have intensified lately, may indeed be a product Apple is currently designing as more of a general purpose, ultra-compact PC than the iPhone/iPod touch, where having third party developers might make much more sense.
Divining why Apple keeps its mobile devices closed as consumer-level small appliances is a futile exercise. We don’t know. We can ascribe it to evil intentions, incompetence, hubris, lack of foresight, etc., or we can consider it as part of strategic market development.
Strategic or systems oriented design is a balance…of business, design and technology. Steve Jobs’ second coming at Apple has been an exemplary demonstration of the power of strategic design. If Jobs had listened to the Street and the pundits who were browbeating Apple to adopt Microsoft’s DRM/WMA or to open up the iTunes/iPod/iTMS triad to third parties a few years ago, I doubt very much that it would have sold over 100 million iPods and 3 billion songs.
Indeed, our prognosticator Russell Beattie had already declared in 2005 “game over” in digital music and entertainment:
Ever play a game of chess and your opponent makes a move and you realize the game is over? Nothing dramatic like taking your queen, just a simple strategic move where, after you look at it for a second you think “oh-oh,” and from that moment on you’re basically just looking for your opponent to make a mistake because otherwise they’re obviously going to win.
Well, I’ve been watching Microsoft’s moves over the past few weeks and I can pretty much say that it’s game over for a lot of Microsoft competitors, though they may not realize it yet.
Obviously, I’m mostly concerned about the mobile phone market, so it’s come as a real shock to me the integration and forsight that Microsoft has applied to this area when it comes to music and video. Very soon anything you’re able to record on your TiVo will be playable on your Windows Mobile device, the new MSN Video Downloads service (among others) will allow you to see television and movies, and the variety of integrated music stores will allow you to buy and play music. There’s no competitor to this breadth of mobile media offerings right now or that I can see in the near future.
Apple lost the PC desktop because it refused to license its Graphical User Interface and now they’re going to lose the Consumer Electronics market because they’ve failed to license their FairPlay DRM technology.
I don’t want to dwell on Beattie’s rather striking misreading of the tea leaves here. I simply want to point out that when you segregate one product out of a company’s strategic decision tree, you fall into the “gadget thinking” hell hole. The vast majority of “iPod killers” are gadgets: often haphazardly thrown together amalgamation of features masquerading as product. The OS, UI, DRM, music store, player app, etc., are usually OEMed from separate sources and wrapped in industrial design only a mother could love. Such insular “gadget thinking” has no chance of killing the iPod which finds its true and lucrative value only in the context of the iPod/iTunes/iTS triad of tight integration.
Obviously opening up tightly integrated platforms like the iPhone/iPod is more difficult. But that’s the price we pay for superior user experience. Unlike segregated gadgets, the innovation curves of various components here can be well coordinated. If Apple were to introduce a much more expanded gesture library over a period of time, for example, it would be problematic to open up the platform to third parties at an inopportune time. I’m convinced that if Apple had introduced the iPhone with twice the multi-touch gestures it may hope to have in the future, it would have seriously botched the remarkably quick acceptance of its interface.
For Apple, the mobile landscape is in flux. The company has to coordinate exigencies of domestic carrier partnerships, European and Asian launches, transition to 3G, specialized components, opportunities in WiFi (and perhaps WiMax) and, really, laying the foundations of small-screen convergence devices for the whole industry, while keeping its most amazing financial performance up to Street expectations.
For armchair open-platform generals, of course, none of that matters: is it open or not?
Then, apparently, there are companies happy to exploit such perceptions: