Apple vs. Android: The Open Factor

on May 24, 2013
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Judging by the comments on John Kirk’s post “Android’s Market Share Is Literally a Joke,” we are well into another operating system religious war. As is always the case in religious wars, it’s tough to make sense of the the arguments. As Harry McCracken notes at Time Techland, we can’t agree who is winning because we can’t agree on what “winning” means.

Advocates often argue that victory for Android is inevitable because Google’s platform is more open and open always triumphs over closed. That proposition is debatable at best. But the arguments is muddled by the confusion of several different concepts of openness. I’m going to try to at least clarify the terms of the debate. There are at least three concepts of open clamoring for our attention; I am going to call them open hardware, open software, and open systems.

Open hardware. In the beginning, all personal computers had an open architecture. The first really popular PC, the Apple ][, followed the design of earlier CP/M-based systems and included slots for hardware add-ins. (One of the more successful of these was the Microsoft SoftCard, which let the Apple ][ run CP/M programs.) In 1984, the Mac came along in a sealed box. There’s a widely held, but almost certainly incorrect, view that Apple lost the first OS war to Microsoft because Macs were closed and IBM PCs and later clones from Compaq and many others allowed modification. This may have been a small factor but much more important was the fact that IBM and others marketed to business, and business, not the rest of us, was buying most of the hardware. Besides, by the time that Apple lost decisively to Windows in the mid-1990s, Macs too had gone to an open architecture. Apple even tried the Microsoft approach of licensing Mac OS to third-party hardware makers. It didn’t work.

Today, this argument is almost entirely moot. Lots of people still buy open Windows boxes (more than you probably think), but hardly any of them ever open them up. Laptops and Apple’s iMac and Mac mini are about as closed as the original Mac. And phones and tablets make hardware modification impossible. The hardware openness argument is strictly of historical interest.

Open software. Google makes Android code available, license and royalty free ((Just because Google gives away Android doesn’t necessarily mean that you are free to use it without licenses or royalties. In particular, Microsoft claims patents on a number of aspects of Android and nearly all tier one Android OEMs except Motorola are paying license fees to Microsoft.)), to anyone who wants to use it. Sort of. If you want to use the Android logo and have access to Google services such as Maps and Google Now, to have to agree to play by Google’s rules. As a result, there are two distinct forms of android out there, official Android licensed by Google and used on all the brand-name phones, and Android Open Source Project devices, including the Amazon Kindle Fire and a gazillion no-name Asian phones.

There are fierce sectarian disputes within the “free and open source software” community over just how free and open code must be to qualify, to the point where the Free Software Foundation’s Richard M. Stallman has denounced Ubuntu, a leading Linux distribution, as “spyware.” A lot of code these days mixes open- and closed-source components. Both iOS and Mac OS are based on an open-source BSD kernel, but the higher level of the OS are proprietary. Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome browsers are both based on the Apple-developed open-source WebKit. Even Windows contains many open-source components.

Fundamentally, open- and closed-source are two different models of software development. Both have their proponents and arguments in their favor and there is no reason to believe that either is inherently superior to the other, But the bottom line is that except for those swayed by religious arguments, whether a given piece of code is open source or not makes no difference to users.

Open systems. Here we get to a real difference. Apple’s iOS ecosystem is tightly controlled. The iPhone and iPad are both tightly locked down devices. Unless you have “jailbroken” your device, a warranty-voiding software modification, an iPad or iPhone can only load software through Apple’s iTunes App Store. And software sold through the App Store must meet a long list of Apple requirements, ranging from those designed to protect the system from malware to those designed to protect the user from pornography to those intended to protect Apple from some kinds of competition. iOS users implicitly accept a tradeoff: Apple makes a lot of choices for them, and in exchange, they get software that is very unlikely to mess up their device or infect it with malware.

Android is a very different world. Google imposes minimal supervision on apps sold through the Google Play store, and a simple change of one setting on any Android device lets the user install software from any source. Many Android phones let users replace the manufacturer’s firmware, a way to get around the sluggishness of OEMs in distributing Android updates but no way to enhance stability or security.

This sort of openness is extremely important to a relatively small group of enthusiasts who really want to dig deep into their devices and who will accept some inconvenience and risk to gain more freedom. They definitely should by Android products. But I suspect that there aren;t enough of them to explain more than, at most, a couple points of share. The great bulk of Android buyers are choosing on other criteria: screen size, price, or what the guy in the phone store happens to be pushing.

The only aspect of openness that really seems to matter to the bulk of buyers is that Android devices come in a wide variety of sizes and designs. With iPhone, you have the choice of the 4/4S or the 5, while Android comes in a wise variety of sizes and designs. The fact that Android is increasingly synonymous with Samsung reduces the choice somewhat, but Samsung seems determined to offer a product for every market niche.