Android Changes Everything

Do you remember life before Amazon? Do you remember life before Google? Or even, life before personal computers? Every so often a new product creates a sea change so big that life before the product seems like just a vague memory of a previous existence in a foreign land.

And now there is Android. Android is an operating system for mobile phones that is being developed by Google. I would bet on Android to crush the iPhone and other competitors.

Now, this is a rather bold prediction coming from someone who hardly uses his mobile phone, has never seen an iPhone, and knows nothing of Android other than what he has read in news stories. True confession—I have never sent a text message. So, what the heck can I know about the future of mobile phones?

In contrast to my prediction, many technology experts, such as Matt Asay, believe Android is no match for Apple’s expertise. Asay explains, “In part this is because Google may lack the aesthetic touch that Apple has in spades, just as Microsoft does… Android is still no iPhone killer.”

Asay is wrong. Aesthetics are critical when products are close competitors in price and quality, but no amount of design aesthetics would currently sell many Changfengs (a Chinese car) over Hondas in the United States. The why is clear—a Changfeng would not be in the same quality league as a Honda.

I understand that to Apple fans, such as Asay, my comparison is ridiculous. The iPhone to them is the current pinnacle of mobile phone development. However, what Asay may not understand is the enormous flexibility and innovative capacity of open source operating systems. Unlike the iPhone and every other competitor, Android is an open source operating system.

True, there are smart developers at Apple who have apparently made a pretty good product in the iPhone. But a handful of smart developers can’t compete against many smart developers, and pretty good can’t compete against great. Planned development can’t compete against the decentralized forces of spontaneous development. Self-organizing systems are more powerful than a thousand Steve Jobs; and they rarely behave as experts, such as Asay, predict.

Google is not going at this alone. Scott Taves writes that Google has put together a “collaborative group including Google and more than 30 semiconductor and software companies, mobile operators and handset manufacturers.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Most importantly, Google is encouraging independent teams not affiliated with any company to develop applications for Android. To kick off interest among developers, Google is awarding $10 million dollars in prize money to developers with the best applications. Developers, according to Google’s Eric Chu, “will be able to make their content available on an open service hosted by Google that features a feedback and rating system similar to YouTube…We feel that developers should have an open and unobstructed environment to make their content available.”

Even before the first Android phone has even been released, there are applications that will interest even a “not much use for a cell phone other than to call and say I’m stuck in traffic” person like me.

How about these features? You are out shopping and about to buy something on impulse. But you wonder, is it a good price? You scan the barcode of the item into an Android phone; and the phone gives you the best price online, as well as the prices at local merchants nearby you.

Or, consider this. There is an emergency; immediately, you need to physically locate a family member. Android will be able to do that too.

Here is the bottom line—free-markets always beat centrally planned economies; and similarly, Android will beat Apple and any other closed operating system. Due to compounding inherent in the market’s discovery process, five years from now, the Android powered mobile phone will be a gadget that we could hardly recognize today. In ways we can’t anticipate today, the long-promised era of convergence among all of our various electronic gadgets with different operating systems will be at hand. If Google is successful with Android, imagine next a Google computer with the open source operating system Linux. Imagine your phone seamlessly integrating with your computer. Imagine no longer having to gnash your teeth over whatever future proprietary operating system Microsoft will be trying to sell. If I was Microsoft, I would be very scared. But then again, those in Microsoft who urged a movement away from proprietary software have long ago been forced out of the company.

A world without Windows is hard to imagine, but then again, so was a world with personal computers. Smart people make mistakes, because they can’t anticipate the power of markets to change the status quo. In 1977, when IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) dominated the computer industry, DEC’s CEO, Ken Olsen, said, “There is no reason for any individual to have a personal computer in his home.”

Of course, there turned out to be thousands of reasons; but those reasons needed to be discovered by the market process. Android will unleash a new process of discovery, and the results are likely to be as revolutionary as the personal computer.

Parts of this piece may read like a gushing press release for Google. I assure you that I am not on Google’s payroll. With unrelenting bad news unfolding in the economy and the iron fist of government increasingly choking off innovation, it is good to know that American entrepreneurs are still busy changing the world and making all of our lives better in the process.

This is the free-market at its best. Without any direction from politicians, Google is about to revolutionize the world—again.

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11 Responses to Android Changes Everything

  1. igli1969 says:

    Great analysis! (Which means I am in complete agreement 😉 )

    What’s more, the old coordination problem (“too many cooks spoil the broth”) is much less of an issue due to Google search itself. The various individuals and groups of individuals working on Android applications and software don’t need a manager or coordinator or facilitator. They can track developments by searching, and contact someone if desired. I would imagine that these working groups are fluid, with members coming and going as things develop. (And as personalities clash. It’s still a plus, because alternatives get explored rather than suppressed, as in the Microsoft model.)

    I use my company cell phone for business calls and conferences, including sending pictures, but generally not texting, as my customers are not in that generation. I have texted my daughter (18 yrs) from time to time with my personal cell, but it’s not something I normally do. Maybe Android will offer an alternative to texting that will catch on (voice-to-text?). The future is bright everywhere the government follows laissez faire.

    Chris C.

  2. James D. says:

    What unnerves me is what people are willing to accept. Linux is superior to pretty much every other operating system available (my IT specialists all agree), but the world still runs on Windows. Mostly because Windows spoon feeds it to you while Linux is something else to learn. Google’s project will outperform the iPhone in every way conceivable, but its up against some scary ideas. Teens say they are willing to put up with advertising messages if it reduces the cost of the bill. They are willing to accept an enormous amount of data mining on their usage. They seem to want the spoon-fed commercial aspect the iPhone and current iteration of cellphones are aiming to provide. They don’t want to think for themselves, it seems. So no matter how superior Google’s Android will be, it stands a solid chance of failure because teens want text, a camera, and to be able to find out when the movie is playing. They don’t want the locator function at all (unless it can be turned on for only certain people and only when they want it). I think this parallels our gov’t issues nicely. Our elected republic is the best system of gov’t yet invented because of the strength it generates from our diversity. But people who can’t be bothered would rather elect petty tyrants who spoon feed them what they want to hear because the real work of our country is messy and sloppy and requires real effort.

  3. frankvv says:

    Dr. B,

    In light of the current implosion of the markets (as you have predicted) and the bonehead intervention of our government in terms of bailing out AIG (I now as a tax payer own an insurance company???), talking about open software platforms for phones was nice breath of fresh air.

    I must begin by saying that I am a big Apple fan, and have owned an Apple computer for personal use as far back as 1981. For work we have three in our graphics department, and I just bought a new MAC iBook for my wife, and we have an iMac at home, and my son has a three year old iBook. We also have numerous iPods in our family. But no iPhone – yet :). However I’m bilingual: I’m writing this on a Dell.

    Certainly the MAC has a niche following, but Microsoft may not have even become a player today if the early superior Apple operating system was opened up to the world, instead of the firm taking a guarded, controlling approach to distributing their software. Sony did a similar thing back in the 1980s with the Beta tape system; considerably better technology but the firm maintained tight controls over the technology. The result: the inferior VHS tape recorder becomes dominant market leader.

    So just like economies, controlling measures on a technology can have negative ramifications on the success of a product. What I find interesting is that Apple still believes in tight controls, as evident with the iPhone. In the US it is only available with one carrier: AT&T. Short term protection and greed is a form of trying to control the spontaneous order of a free market and in the long run, the kiss of death for a product. Clearly history has demonstrated that this phenomenon occurs time and time again.

  4. Chris,

    You’ve given an excellent description of the power of self-organizing teams. Dissenting views at Microsoft are indeed surpressed.

    Jim,

    Indeed, ease of use is valuable to many and initially Android may lag in that area. However a few years down the road Android will have many important applications that we can’t even anticipate today.

    Frank,

    You are absolutely right, Apple’s failure to make available their operating system to other hardware manufacturers was a huge mistake.

  5. Chris Claypoole says:

    Jim – Some of the reasons for lack of acceptance of Linux may be due to people who “don’t want to think for themselves.” Indeed, much of the world’s troubles can be laid at that particular door. But a larger reason is the convenience offered by products such as Windows or the iPhone. Call it laziness if you wish, but most people have a limited amount of time to spend, and personal preferences on how that time is spent varies widely and wildly. And changes with age.

    I still use Windows, even though I am easily computer-literate enough to learn Linux. But the tasks I use my computer for are rather limited, and I doubt if I would see enough of an improvement in accessing email and surfing the Net to justify the extra time needed to learn Linux. And, no, I haven’t had a BSOD since the 80’s, nor have I ever had a virus or similar (common-sense care is all that’s needed there, IMHO). I don’t have a Blackberry or similar, as I don’t have a need yet. Not sure about Android, especially if the GPS cannot be turned off. Current cell phones are bad enough, but it takes a court order (in theory) to let the “authorities” track you that way. I won’t get On Star for the same reason.

    My time is spent on political economy. My guess is that fewer than 5% of Americans care about that to any great extent, and fewer still to the extent that I do. Most people I know are totally uninterested in these subjects. Until now, that is. I have had several colleagues approach me in the last few weeks to ask for my take on the current mess. None were happy with my answers (what a surprise).

    Regards,

    Chris C.

  6. gfish says:

    Android is still very much an experimental plaything, one of many Google ideas that were supposed to change the world. Google Office was supposed to dislodge Microsoft Office from its perch. Google’s idea to resell ad space in magazines and on radio shows died a few months into the pilot. Google Books was supposed to be the source for searching books but it never got enough steam or content. Google Video had to be propped up with a $1.6 billion purchase of YouTube. Google has tried to sell $20,000 search solutions for corporate intranets for years and so far, only a few, if anyone has bought in. And so on…

    In short, Google is an ad company. A very good one. With a cool satellite mapping program that quickly caught on with other search engines and MapQuest. But pretty much everything they try is under perpetual beta, always touted as the [ insert popular tool here ] Killer but never really becoming one. This is the main reason why Android is being declared DOA.

    When it comes to open source and its comparisons to the free market, we need to point out that open source programs such as Darwin (made by Apple originally) and Linux (initiated by IBM) have been on the open market, competed and lost. Why? Because Windows and OS X offer something people want and Linux can’t. Proprietary systems offer speed and simplicity. It’s not that the people don’t want to think for themselves. They just don’t have weeks to dedicate to customizing their OS and installing thousands of drivers. Proprietary systems come prepackaged with tens of thousands of drivers from thousands of manufacturers and software markers and all a user needs to do is flip the switch. That’s what users want. They don’t want to be their own IT department.

    As for the quality of open source vs. a handful of developers, there is a point. Open source projects tend to be less buggy and crash less often. Firefox is much better than IE. Hands down. I use Firefox all the time and so does almost everyone I know. OpenOffice is nice, but its underpowered. Same with GIMP and Darwin. For all their grace and speed, open source projects often lack the design, desired ease of use and the features many power users want but won’t get. Instead they get fancy behind the scenes footwork and features only a developer would really notice.And let’s be realistic, proprietary systems will easily hold their own against even the best open source project 99% of the time.

    Just because it’s open source and beloved by open source enthusiasts, doesn’t mean it will change the world. Linux hasn’t. And blaming the user for wanting to use something different is more a political move than a business one. Like you said, free market does batter than a command one…

  7. gfish,

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I use Windows for exactly the reasons that you explain.

    I recall vividly how almost everyone expected Amazon to fail very soon after its launch. The reasons given ranged from their business model of selling books cheap wasn’t viable, to that they couldn’t compete on the amenities that a physical store could offer. What wasn’t anticipated was how quickly Amazon would morph and morph and morph again.

    Now I realize that I’m comparing apples (Amazon) and oranges (open source). But my point is basically the same–although perhaps Android can’t touch the iPhone today (I’ll leave the final judgment to the market) come back in 2 or 3 years. I will bet that the Android powered phone will have morphed so many times that it will be unrecognizable to today’s users. Yes, the iPhone will improve too but at a fraction of the speed.

  8. frankvv says:

    Jim et al,

    You mentioned that one of the reasons that the Antroid and open architect software packages in general fail is because consumers “…don’t want to think for themselves, it seems”. I’m not sure I agree with you. Consumers want turn key easy-to-use gadgets. They don’t want to have to learn a new programming language or a complex human interface to make the product sing and dance. Or at least I know I don’t, and I don’t think I could be classified as not wanting to think for myself. That is like me telling my wife she is lazy because she won’t change the oil in the car herself; she would rather hire a mechanic (or me) to do it. Most of us buy gadgets to somehow improve our lives and not with the intent of finding a new hobby in the process: programming the darn thing.

    I believe that at the end of the day the power of open software is for small developers to come up with programs that will integrate into the software and in turn offer powerful new features or options. Independent programmers can use the open-software concept to bring new ideas into the product; ideas that the software developer could not achieve because of the lack of resources to make happen. But in order for that concept to be viable, generally speaking, there has to be a revenue generating stream in the deal somewhere, other wise why would a firm bother spending time developing software for these new and unique features? And likewise somehow the original developer needs to find a way to get paid as well. Perhaps with items that have hardware and software marketers could consider the hardware the equivalent of the razor blade, while the software would become similar to a razor so that the software flexibility become the catalyst which in turn sells the hardware. In my mind trying to lock out others with proprietary software in the long run is counter productive.

  9. E says:

    If you end up writing about the bail-out of the financial markets, here’s one for you:

    http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/politics/2008/09/19/ron.paul.bailouts.cnn

  10. E says:

    Regarding the instant post, I’m not sold on Android because while it’s great for developers, as stated previously, nobody in the user community wants to type “cat filex | grep x | chmod rwxrwxrrx | ncftp :219.241.4.1\newfile” (grep and pipe are staples of UNIX). By the same token, they would rather hit a button “configure” than type “ipconfig flush DNS” and such. The other issue regarding MAC and DOS/MS/other OS machines is that they are/were used for different things. MAC is great for publishing and artistic renditions. MAC could not for a long time (don’t know about the kernels they are using now) do the hard computing required for corporate and engineering duties. I couldn’t imagine MAC’s used in a RAID 5 configuration. The evolution of the MAC and MS community (and to some extent the other narrower communities of UNIX, LINUX, Java, C++, C-Sharp, .NET, etc.) is subject to the capabilities and functions of requirements of each community. My gut feeling is that the same will apply to Android.

  11. E,

    Thanks for the link–Ron Paul is right on the mark. My thoughts on this historic week will appear on Sunday.

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