Google’s burden of Flash

Vic Gundotra spent over 15 years at Microsoft, becoming General Manager of Platform Evangelism to lock developers into that company’s proprietary APIs. In 2007 he joined Google and is now Vice President of Developer Products.

At Google his job is to get developers to support Google’s search and advertising businesses — which are anything but open or transparent — by promoting “open” technologies that lock into Google properties in somewhat opaque but forceful ways. A layer of misdirection has to be carefully laid out and Google has to be seen on the side of angels so that developers and consumers alike must not spend too much time thinking about just how un-open Google’s search and ad cashcows really are.

Things that interfere with this business model must be dealt with decisively, even if it costs billions. For example, on Microsoft driven mobile devices Bing is the likely search engine or on iPhone OS driven devices native apps are the direct conduit to information, both denying Google the ability to monetize search. Not good.

The holy fight

So Gundotra spent much of 2009 promoting the general proposition that the days of desktop software, proprietary technologies, native mobile apps and any number of development and deployment strategies that can have potentially adverse impact on Google cashcows were unholy [emp. mine]:

• Classic Gundotra evangelism from Google’s I/O 2009 developer conference:

Bet on the web…Its rate of innovation has dramatically accelerated over the past 12 months, giving rise to an open web platform that’s fundamentally more capable and more sophisticated than even a year ago. The combination of HTML 5, a vibrant developer community, and the pervasiveness of modern web browsers is delivering a programming model and an end-user experience that will surprise and delight people.

• Pitching HTML5 to Tim O’Reilly at Web 2.0 in 2009 (midway in the video) by showing how Google turned an iPhone native app via HTML5 to an Android web app:

vicgundotra.png

• Gundotra’s Google I/O 2009 keynote clearly had an effect on O’Reilly:

Never underestimate the web,” says Gundotra…he goes on to tell the story of a meeting he remembers when he was VP of Platform Evangelism at Microsoft five years ago. “We believed that web apps would never rival desktop apps. There was this small company called Keyhole, which made this most fantastic geo-visualization software for Windows. This was the kind of software we always used to prove to ourselves that there were things that could never be done on the web.” A few months later, Google acquired Keyhole, and shortly thereafter released Google Maps with satellite view.

“We knew then that the web had won,” he said. “What was once thought impossible is now commonplace.”Google doesn’t want to repeat that mistake, and as a result, he said, “we’re betting big on HTML 5.

• During a panel at Mobilebeat 2009, Gundotra was unambiguous about Google’s long(er) term open vs. closed strategy:

We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters and certainly that’s where Google is investing.”

Stuff happens

That was then, this is now.

Google’s platform Android is now competing against Apple’s iPhone OS platform, currently as an underdog. It appears that Google needs a checklist of items that Apple devices don’t or won’t do to differentiate itself and solicit developers’ attention. Flash to the rescue!

So Google brings in another actor to the stage, Andy Rubin, Vice President of Engineering on Android, with a post at Adobe Featured Blogs no less:

Partnerships have been at the very heart of Android, the first truly open and comprehensive mobile platform…Google is working to enable an open ecosystem for the mobile world by creating a standard, open mobile software platform…Google is happy to be partnering with Adobe to bring the full web… [emp. mine]

Which neatly echoes what Adobe’s Mike Chambers was orchestrating the same day:

I think that the closed system that Apple is trying to create is bad for the industry, developers, and ultimately consumers, and that is not something that I want to actively promote…We are at the beginning of a significant change in the industry, and I believe that ultimately open platforms will win out over the type of closed, locked-down platform that Apple is trying to create.

Alice in Wonderland

We’ve come full circle: Google positions itself as the champion of “open web” (because it’s good for its own business), promotes HTML5 (because it’s the vehicle to get there) but comes across a formidable competitor in Apple and finds itself at a disadvantage. What to do? Why, let’s promote the very un-open and proprietary Flash, as a purely cynical competitive bludgeon against Apple. Never mind what our General Manager of Platform Evangelism Gundotra has been telling the world for the past year. Business is business.

This, of course, isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed naked displays of Google’s hypocrisy. Despite all sorts of criticism at the time, Google did go into business in China for commercial expediency, then feigned shock for having discovered there was censorship. Just like when it grafted the intrusive Google Buzz on top of the widely used Gmail without opt-in to quickly build traction even if it knew it would expose millions of users’ privacy, then blamed it first on users’ lack of understanding and subsequently on lack of external testing.

Comes a fork

Indeed, “we are at the beginning of a significant change in the industry” as Adobe’s Chambers says. And Google has a historic opportunity and responsibility (to its own incessant “open web” rhetoric) to let Flash die on its legacy vine. We do not get progress by blindly (and in Google’s case expediently) catering to legacy. That’s precisely why Apple is unique in the industry. It introduces and promotes new technologies by “killing” the old: from floppy disks to physical keyboard and stylus on mobiles…and now Flash.

This isn’t news to Google, however. It recently killed the IE 6 browser. Google knows “full web” is not the same as “open web”. Surely, there are tens of millions Microsoft IE 6 and Silverlight users on the web. A “full web” would require support for those as well as myriad other technologies. How come Google is not promoting Microsoft properties in the name of “full web”? Obviously, Adobe/Flash poses little competition to Google, unlike Apple/iPhones and iPads or Microsoft/Bing and Office.

As the most important web company on the planet, Google has been given a unique chance to display leadership: does it really want an “open web” or is it just interested in promoting a momentary “competitive” advantage against Apple? Does Google believe in what its General Manager of Platform Evangelism has been selling developers? Or are we back to “Don’t be evil, as long as it’s profitable”?

Google’s final embrace of Flash will tell.

Apple to xplatform developers: We’re no longer suicidal

About 15 years ago, I think it was a Seybold expo in Boston, I was watching a Dell representative demo new PCs to, what looked like from behind, a small group of corporate executives in expensive suits.

Towards the end of the demo one of those executives turned to look around the huge Dell booth and, as luck would have it, saw me a few steps back. He was a former client of mine and someone who could write very big checks for hardware and software acquisition at one of the largest media companies in the world. He came over, with the Dell rep in tow, to chat. Finally, he asked, “What do you think of these Dells?” I don’t quite recall how delicately I put it but my response was something like, “If you don’t care about dealing with a commodity hardware vendor focused on price and an OS provider that neither understands nor cares much about publishing, sure, they are cheaper.”

That was a time when the multitasking Windows NT had begun to siphon off a considerable number of Mac users, even from the erstwhile Apple strongholds in creative industries. Application developers had started to migrate their once Mac-only software to Windows. Then, PCs were considerably cheaper than Macs, but unfortunately Wintel offerings had some some significant deficiencies in design workflow, including font handling, OS-wide color matching, high-res printing, etc.

While Apple did go through very dark times, the mass exodus foretold by the PC camp was never able to deliver a knock-out blow to Macs and Dell soon lost interest in targeting Apple’s creative user base that largely stayed with the beleaguered company. A few years later, Steve Jobs took over Apple and today it’s the third most valuable company in the U.S., over seven times bigger than Dell in market capitalization.

Exodus redux?

Today, if one listens to pundits and geeks, Apple is again at the cusp of an exodus of developers and losing its primacy in the mobile device space. The latest issue is Apple’s management of the App Store. Fifteen years later, the tone is quite different. I don’t ever recall an Apple competitor signing off a diatribe with a “Go screw yourself Apple” in print then. But today I’m not interested in commenting on Adobe’s naked attempt to agitate its developer base to browbeat Apple in public, but in exploring what choices App Store developers currently have beyond Apple’s “walled garden.”

Many of the App Store developers got into creating products for mobile devices precisely because for the very first time in history the iPhone allowed them to bypass the limits, cost and sheer operational lunacy imposed by telecom carriers. In less than a couple of years, Apple created an online distribution monster of 185,000 apps and 3.5 billion downloads. The fact that no other app store clone has been able to even approach that ought to tell developers something about the magnitude of the efficacy of the App Store. The grass isn’t greener elsewhere.

Why not?

Fifteen years ago Dell and Microsoft found out that selling beige boxes on the cheap to Mac users wasn’t as easy as it would appear on a spreadsheet. Beyond cookie-cutter hardware and simple OS services, these users demanded a frictionless ecosystem. Today’s iPhone OS user base is much larger but just as discerning. What they represent, as marketing demographics, is historically unique. Just as Dell now realizes that ‘marketshare-at-any-cost’ is indeed a ruinous business model, it’s not the number of users but the demographics of that user base that counts:

  • No other vendor can boast an ecosystem of 100 million devices (from phones to gaming devices to tablets) unified under a single OS, app/media store and a reliable and proven schedule of innovation pipeline.
  • No other vendor has ever put together the depth and breath of an ecosystem of music, videos, TV, movies, podcasts, games, apps and soon books, magazines, comics and newspapers like the iTunes store.
  • No other vendor can match Apple’s global base of 100 million users with iTunes credit card accounts, with 49% of iPhone users having a college education and 67% earning more than $70,000 a year.
  • No other vendor’s user base is as diverse or as engaged: while 3/4 of Android users are male, iPhone OS users are nearly equally divided. iPhone OS devices’ share of browsing traffic is twice the rest of the industry combined. Also iPhone users buy apps at about twice rate of Android users’.
  • No other vendor has anything like the iPhone touch. While 78% of iPod touch users are under 25, only 24% of Android users are, and as a Flurry report aptly summarizes:

    when today’s young iPod Touch users age by five years, they will already have iTunes accounts, saved personal contacts to their iPod Touch devices, purchased hundreds of apps and songs, and mastered the iPhone OS user interface. This translates into loyalty and switching costs, allowing Apple to seamlessly “graduate” young users from the iPod Touch to the iPhone.

  • No other vendor dominates mobile games like Apple now. With over 50,000 games in the App Store, it has 10 and 20 times what Nintendo and Sony offers respectively, and this before Apple’s Game Center has even shipped.
  • No other vendor offers the ease of use of a single click “purchase & install” capability as smoothly as Apple. In fact, just finding an online store on other platforms to purchase an app appropriate to one’s device can be a chore.
  • No other vendor markets its app store clone as pervasively or obsessively as Apple, by featuring how apps are actually used.
  • No other vendor actually makes any significant profit from its app store clone, and when there’s no profit vendors usually lose the incentive to focus on products.
  • No other vendor has been as capable of patiently educating its user base to adopt new technologies and usage patterns, like multitouch computing, one-click transactions, in-app purchasing, virtual typing, casual games on phones, etc.

The escape clause

These are among what developers would leave behind if they choose to abandon Apple for uncharted and unproven platforms of other vendors. Users do not follow esoteric open/closed platform politics, they vote with their money for convenience, reliability and value.

In order to become a better garden for developers, it’s not enough for other vendors to offer something that iPhone or iPad doesn’t. They have to match and better Apple’s current iPhone OS driven devices across all fronts. webOS had multitasking but no content. Nokia has market share but no direction or excitement. RIM caters to enterprise but not much else. Motorola still thinks it’s enough to manufacture handsets and leave everything else to ‘partners’ that turn around and stab you in the back. Android may be open but is currently a geek ghetto with nothing to match iTunes store. And, let’s not kid ourselves, Google is there not to ‘help’ but to commoditize hardware manufacturers by funneling them to compete against each other on Google’s platform largely on price.

Apple’s hand

Over the years, it must have been embarrassing for Steve Jobs to swallow his contempt every time he had to invite an executive from Microsoft or Adobe to the stage at a keynote event to explain why their Mac product was behind schedule and inferior to their Windows version.

However, 2010 is not like 1994. Apple has money, mindshare and the hottest platform to no longer having to beg. Today, Apple is more concerned about having to re-live its recent history — getting jerked around by Microsoft or held hostage by Adobe — than what it thinks would be manageable damage by a few developers that may leave its platform. Some may regard that as being arrogant. For Apple it’s the price of being in charge of its own destiny. To capitulate at the height of its newly found vigor would be suicidal. Suicidal Apple is no longer.