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Fragmentation VS Control: The Real OS War

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Steve Jobs intruded into Apple's financial conference call last week with an attack on Google's Android operating system. Possibly annoyed by Android's success, he complained: “Google loves to characterize Android as 'open', and iOS and iPhone as 'closed'. We find this a bit disingenuous, and clouding the real difference between our two approaches. The first thing most of us think about when we hear the word 'open' is Windows, which is available on a variety of devices.”

Jobs is correct to see Windows as more open than Mac OS X or iOS, but "open" is not a binary division, except to people who are only interested in fighting pseudo-religious wars. A Harvard Business School paper by professors Tom Eisenmann, Geoffrey Parker and Marshall Van Alstyne makes a more constructive contribution. Opening Platforms: How When and Why? points out that platforms can be open or closed at different levels: for the platform developer (e.g. Microsoft, Apple), the platform provider (e.g. Dell, Apple), the application developer (e.g. Adobe, Apple) and the end user. You're welcome to sketch out a grid rating the different platforms at each level.

If you do, I think we'll agree that Apple's iOS is closed at three levels and semi-open at the user level: Apple controls what you can run on iOS, unless you jailbreak the device. We'll definitely agree that Linux is open at all four levels: not only can you run whatever software you like, you can create your own distro, if you want. But how open is Google's Linux-based Android? Google has total control of the code before it's released, but the phone manufacturers and networks can change it in ways that limit your freedom. It's complicated.

But Jobs is famously a control-freak, and the real issue is fragmentation versus control. He continued: “Unlike Windows, however, where most PCs have the same user interface and run the same apps, Android is very fragmented. Many Android OEMs, including the two largest, HTC and Motorola, install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience. The user’s left to figure it all out. Compare this with iPhone, where every handset works the same.”

This is an argument that has been running for decades. Users want both standards and innovation, but the two desires are incompatible. Proprietary companies such as Apple and IBM try to enforce their own standards, but that restricts innovation and choice (there aren't 50 different phones running iOS4, and you can't get it on every network). However, complete openness, as Jobs appreciates, leads to fragmentation (there are more than a hundred versions of Linux).

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