Is The Industry Moving Closer to Apple’s Whole Widget Approach? Not Really

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If the iPhone is the Jesus Phone, what's a suitable monicker for Google's Nexus One? Maybe we should call it the My Jesus Phone Can Beat Up Your Jesus Phone (you know, MJPCBUYJP for short), judging by the way some of the press and Android fans have been acting about the device.

(At least one person has a more...colorful name for it, but note there's profanity before you go clickling all willy nilly.)

At long last, Google is making its own Android device, just like Apple makes the iPhone, or so the narrative I've been reading about the device would have us believe. Better yet, because Google is doing what Apple is doing -- developing the hardware and software -- the mighty Google can unseat those arrogant jerks in Cupertino and put the iPhone in its place!

It's all nonsense, of course, but let me preface (or is it now a postface?) that with the fact that I hope Google and the Android platform can step up to the plate and push the envelope in the world of smartphones. As I have often said in the Apple Context Machine in my columns, I love competition, and as a consumer of Apple's products, I want to see the company pushed hard to continue innovating.

And I also believe that Google is one of the few companies in the tech world that can go toe-to-toe with Apple in terms of making a great product. Indeed, they may be one of the few companies that can make products "that just work," which is one of the things I love most about Apple, though they still have to prove that in the world of hardware.

OK, with that Google lovefest out of the way, I've been a little stupefied at the way some people are calling the Nexus One a Google phone. It's not a Google phone, it's a Google-branded phone. It may well even be a Google-designed and Google-branded phone, but it's not a Google phone in the same way that the iPhone is an Apple phone.

My beef here starts with my belief that part of why I enjoy Apple's devices so much is the way in which they work so well, and that this stems from the fact that that both the hardware and the software are controlled by one company. This is that "whole widget" thing that Steve Jobs and other Apple execs talk about from time to time.

When it comes to business philosophy, Apple stands apart from most of the rest of the tech world by pursuing a "whole widget" strategy. While the rest of the computing world embraced the lower cost, rush-to-the-bottom pricing benefits of open licensing, Apple has done, and continues to do, its own thing.

People are finding that the marriage of software and hardware to a committed purpose under one vision can result in a device that not only isn't frustrating, it can sometimes even be awesome.The reality, of course, is that for (too many) years, it did its own thing in a very flawed way, or perhaps I should more accurately say very flawed ways. This is especially true in the years of Steve Jobs' absence from the company, but I think Apple's recent success proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Apple's downfall in the 1990s was not a product of having refused to license the Mac OS, but rather a product of disastrous management and a host of other related issues.

Today Apple owns the digital device market with a proprietary solution, the Mac is seeing quarter after quarter of unit growth and solid market share gains with its proprietary approach, and the company is all but in charge of the smartphone industry with the proprietary iPhone, even though it's not the #1 company in terms of market share in that industry.

There's only one reason for this, in my never-humble opinion, and it's not Apple's admittedly successful marketing. No, it's the fact that millions of people have been finding that they really enjoy working with devices that don't suck. After a generation of Microsoft being in charge of the computing world, people are discovering that they don't have to settle for "good enough," a topic John Martellaro wrote about earlier today.

People are finding, whether or not they actually think about it, that the marriage of software and hardware to a committed purpose under one vision can result in a device that not only isn't frustrating, it can sometimes even be awesome. The proof that there is room in the market for proprietary approaches is inherent in Apple's success today.

(In fact, do me a favor and remind me to write a column about people saying Apple is in danger of repeating the mistake of the Mac with the iPhone.)

I'm well aware that I could be projecting here, but what we've been seeing is the rest of the tech world slowly and vaguely cottoning on to this notion. For instance, Microsoft went proprietary with its Zune line once the planet roundly rejected the craptacular products that resulted in the business-as-usual open licensing model that has been pushed by Big Redmond.

There was even a lot of speculation that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was going to show us a proprietary slate device based on its Courier project at last night's CES keynote (he didn't, but he did show us some third party tablet devices from HP and other companies). The scuttlebut was that Microsoft was embracing Apple's approach, and when Courier does get released we'll see more of that nonsense.

And of course Google developed its own Android device in order to better compete with the iPhone, as I offered way back in the beginning of this piece.

The thing is, though, that they didn't. Google worked with HTC, the handset maker that actually makes the hardware for the Nexus One. That's so bloody far from a proprietary marriage of hardware and software that my blood pressure rose just a little bit more every time I saw someone writing anything to that effect.

I've no doubt that the Nexus One is going to be a successful device, and I personally expect it to be the best Android device on the market for at least the next season. I think many people will love it, and that it will represent a big step forward for the Android platform as a whole. I think it's going to be seen as the turning point in which Android began taking a serious bite out of RIM's BlackBerry share.

Indeed, because the OS maker is in charge of the shipping product, I expect the Nexus One to work better than any smartphone other than the iPhone. But it won't surpass the iPhone in that regard, in part because the team that made the hardware was working under its own vision, with its own plans and goals, and its own agenda -- the OS and the hardware were not developed together with one vision guiding their creation.

I'll readily acknowledge that Google has brought many aspects of the user experience in-house with the Nexus One -- namely the OS itself, designing the specs on the device, and the buying experience -- but it is still a far cry from Google even being able to design and develop everything in-house. Hell, even the fact that the device can be used on a variety of carriers means that the user experience is less controlled than with the iPhone.

While the industry has sat up and taken notice of the fact that people like the results of Apple's way of doing business, developments like Zune, Nexus One, and maybe even Microsoft's unreleased Courier device are really only examples of the industry moving closer to Apple, not actually getting close.

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10 Comments Leave Your Own

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Bryan, strong argument about unified hardware/software. It applies well to the iPod and iPhone, not as well to the Mac. Mac OS X on an HP Mini 10v is actually far more compelling for some purposes than Mac OS X on any Apple hardware! Mac applications in kiosk mode on an Apple TV are for more compelling for some purposes than those applications on a Mac Mini or the Apple TV running stock software. Both are legally precluded by Apple’s licensing that supports its whole widget approach.

CES has shown a plethora of Android devices, from phones to MIDs to tablets to netbooks. The multi-vendor nature of the ecosystem will infuse many more ideas into the space than Apple alone could/would ever do with iPhone OS. Some of these idea will flop, some will be wildly successful. Anyone predicting which will flop and which will fly is just guessing right now. As a developer who has played with the Android SKD, I know that I can write an app right now for any of these screen sizes and expect that it will probably be 98% working for whatever device comes out. Not so with iPhone SDK. As a developer, I can replace components on Android, like the keyboard. Not so with iPhone. So I would expect far more experimentation in the Android space, meaning one of those products is far more likely to stumble onto just what some particular user really needs. It’s basic economics of networked systems. More nodes, more free entry means more potential edges, more peculiar needs potentially satisfied. It’s messy, but that’s how markets work!

Nemo

Dear Bosco:  That let a thousand flowers bloom and one will be the most beautiful is an argument that Microsoft and its apologist have been making sense Steve Jobs returned to the captain’s seat at Apple.  It is a specious argument for the reasons that Mr. Chaffin makes supra.  Excellence requires full unifications of the operating systems and the hardware so that the particular vision and the capabilities that manifest it can be implemented by one. It, as Microsoft has discovered on those rare occasions when it has had vision, is a bootless effort to have a vision that can’t be implemented, because doing so requires control of a part of the widget that someone else controls and who won’t do what you ask, because he has his own purposes. 

Excellence also requires that vision that is devoted to excellence in the users’ experience and in every aspect of the device and in every aspect of bringing the device to market.  Very few have that vision; even fewer have such devotion to that vision that he won’t ship until the product is ready; and none, other than Apple, have the vision, the unwavering devotion to it, and the control of the whole widget—the full integration of operating system and hardware, and, where necessary, the control of the retail experience and the app—to manifest that vision.

That is why the let a thousand flowers bloom argument is specious, because instead of a thousand flowers, you only get a stem here, some roots there, a leaf or two, or some blossoms that belong to any particular company.  Then that company has to use other parts of the flower, which belong to others and which are built for other purposes, to construct the whole flower.  That cobbled together flower is at least flawed and is often hideous.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Reading Nemo’s paean to Apple, I am reminded of this:

“Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology. Where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory thoughts. Our Unification of Thought is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people. With one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!”

Now, I’m going to go walk the dog and see if there are any blonde hotties running around in shorts to respark my faith in a sane world.

Constable Odo

Apple’s approach isn’t particularly well-liked by know-it-all tech junkies.  They keep insisting that Apple is making them it’s bitch by controlling the experience.  Already somebody stuck new ROMs in the Nexus One.  That what those Android types love to do.  Put about 50 different UIs on an Android smartphone and say it makes it a better product.  There will always be people in this world that can’t stand doing what others tell them to do.  Those are the Apple haters.  The rebels who can’t stand being ‘controlled.’

Apple probably takes a long hard look at the whole ecosystem and decides what will work the best for the majority of the users in the ecosystem.  Mr. Spock had said, “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few.”  Apple haters just don’t seem to understand what that means.  They always think that somehow Apple is getting into their head to destroy them or something.  I think most successful businesses try to do things to keep consumers coming back.  It makes sense to run a business that way.  Apple should try to keep the experience high for everyone, not just those capable few that enjoy living on the bleeding edge.  Apple should try to build devices that kids to oldsters can use and enjoy.  Not some frankenmonster devices for a few tech-heads.  Most of my family doesn’t have a clue about OSes or Tegra processors or modified ROMs.  All they do is pick a smartphone and they expect it to work most of the time.

OK, the iPhone can’t run users choice of multi-tasking apps, but who the heck except tech-heads complain about it.  Most iPhone users probably don’t even care.  I think a “walled garden” approach is the easiest to control (yeah, mind control.  No). I mean control the experience for a larger group of users.  There are always compromises when the user has to give up control, but if it’s for the betterment of the ecosystem then to some degree it should be given up to suit the many.  I’m not in total agreement of it since I love cutting-edge, but I certainly do understand why Apple’s mobile ecosystem can’t be a free-for-all.  The more users that get on the platform, the harder it will be to keep stable unless rigid controls are set in place.

I shudder to think of what the Android platform is going to look like in a few years with 50 million Android devices from 100 different companies.  Who the hell is going to take responsibility for that mess?  I’m sure Google isn’t.  They’ll just step back and say “Oops.”

graxspoo

I was about to agree with Bosco that the “whole widget” approach by its nature means less recombination and therefor less market coverage… (Can you say “Mini Tower?” How about “Netbook?” Apple ignores markets that it doesn’t think are worth its while. Can’t blame them, but it does mean they miss market segments.)

But then I realized that Apple’s saying they make the whole widget is really just marketing. They didn’t invent FreeBSD, or the x86 architecture. They didn’t invent point and click windowing. They rely on numerous vendors to make a Mac or an iPhone. They integrate those components, just like Dell does.

Of course, they have more control over OS X than Dell has over Windows, but I know people that work at Apple, and most individual Apple employees don’t have any more control over the OS than I do! The hardware division doesn’t control the software, and the software division doesn’t control the hardware.

If you look at OS X as a Unix variant, it’s just one strand of a great family of operating systems. What Apple does isn’t much different than if Red Hat started selling boxes with Linux preinstalled. In Apple’s case they have Steve Job’s exceptionally good taste acting to put the final varnish on the user experience of both the hardware and the software. That’s what “the whole widget” really means.

Nemo

Dear Bosco:  My comments are no pean to Apple, for any person can adopt the approach that Apple employs:  (1) Integrating an operating system with devices that are tailor-made for it; (2) control and exploitation of the essential elements of that integration by exercise of proprietary rights in intellectual property (IP); (3) a unique vision for the users’ experience that is manifest in those integrated devices; (4) elegant and intuitive design for those devices; and (5) employing the foregoing in an unwavering commitment to excellence in the users’ experience when using those devices.  And a great many—Microsoft, Google, RIM, Nokia, et al.—are trying to varying degrees to do adopt the foregoing approach.  What does uniquely belong to Apple is its vision and its proprietary rights in its IP.  But beyond that, any one that successfully adopts the foregoing approach wins equal praise.

And Dear Graxspoo:  To make myself clear, as I said supra, what is Apple’s is its vision and its IP.  That does not means that Apple does not license or otherwise licitly use others’ technology when executing the approach, supra, to make its devices.  What distinguishes Apple is its vision, its IP, and its commitment to the approach, supra, to manifest its vision in its products.

Bryan Chaffin

Something I didn’t make clear in this particular piece, though I’ve said it before, is that I most certainly believe there is room in the marketplace for both proprietary and open licensing models, and whatever other approaches and hybrids that there are.

I don’t think Apple’s approach is the only approach with merit, I just personally believe that Apple’s approach will usually offer the best results in the areas I think most important.

Nookster

It would be great if the Whole Widget principle resulted in up to date graphics APIs, and reliable bluetooth controller software.

Although to be fair, after few years of BT updates it would seem that Apple have finally figured out how to make built in Cambridge bluetooth radios work reliably 90% of the time, yay, ideology for the win.

Nemo

I quite agree with Mr. Chaffin.  Let a thousand licit business models bloom.  And now that we have Judge Alsup’s teaching and the case law from other courts of competent jurisdiction, we know that copyright, patent, trademarks, and other intellectual property (IP) rights support a range of business models that extend from Microsoft’s proprietary license for Windows for a royalty, which is subject to certain restrictions, and the General Public Users License for Linux and other open-source licenses to Apple’s use of its IP rights to restrict its innovations, both hardware and software, to its integrated devices—though Apple has on occasion provided some of its technology to world pursuant to an open-source license—with everything in between, such as Google’s Nexus One, which is a hybrid that is closer to the Apple way of doing things but which combines elements of open-source with integrated design. 

So let all of these various technologies and the business models that support them compete in the market, and let the best one prevail, even if, as is always the case, its victory is only temporary and provisional, having to be won again and again on each passing day.

JulesLt

I think people tend to forget that games consoles are a good example of the ‘whole widget’ approach (and also of machines that are essentially general purpose computers that have been crippled with restrictive operating systems / proprietary IO / etc).

Consumers don’t see them that way - they see them as games consoles. They see products in terms of what they do, not in terms of what they could do, if . . .

(It’s also funny that many politically minded people I know use PCs - the whole software freedom thing is completely off their radar, in much the same way that a lot of software freedom people don’t really care less about sweatshop labour. Kind of difficult when almost every bit of tech kit is made that way).


“Apple?s saying they make the whole widget is really just marketing”.

There is a difference between making and controlling. Their relationship with chip makers, including Intel, is strong enough they get to influence chip design. They don’t just take BSD and use it - they’re also one of the biggest contributors to it, and of course get to influence it (integrating Sun’s DTrace, or introducing kernel level thread-pooling aka libdispatch).

“What Apple does isn?t much different than if Red Hat started selling boxes with Linux preinstalled.”

Actually, it is. Apple don’t ship any boxes that just come with OS X. As with games consoles, or indeed as with Windows machines, the value is less about the operating system, than in platform specific software.

That might be iLife, or Logic or Final Cut Studio, or third party software ? but from a developer point of view, one thing that is clear to me is how much OS X does relate to Apple?s own software development (the public APIs often coming from earlier private APIs, GCD/Blocks/OpenCL are obviously technologies Apple wants to use in their own apps). Contrast that with Microsoft and .NET/C# - it?s not being driven by the requirements of MS Office but rather to complete with Borland and Java.

Red Hat don?t do any similar application development work - although of course they contribute to Linux desktop apps, they are not really application focused in the same sense. Their focus really is on providing a development and deployment platform for third-party server software.

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