Topics include: programming, Apple, Unix, gadgets, large-scale web sites and other nerdy stuff.

How I Wish It Were True

2009-11-20 15:42:06

Paul Graham's recent essay, Apple's Mistake is a very clear, and I think, fair description of what's gone totally wrong with the App Store and the associated review process.

The absurdly reductionist summary is: "unless Apple pays attention to what programmers think, the iPhone as a platform will wither and die." How I hope Apple takes that argument to heart! But the bitter, cranky realist in me says it's probably not going to happen. Nor do I think Apple will suffer much (noticeably) if they continue on their current path.

I've had an iPhone since the second day you could buy them. I love the device, as I have not loved any other gadget. And this is what I believe breaks Paul's argument: the device, without any apps at all, is so much better than anything else out there, I would not seriously consider switching to some other phone. I suspect a lot of people, most people in fact, who care not a whit of the pain and suffering of programmers to labor to get their wares into Apple's store, who like the simplicity and elegance of the iPhone would behave the same way.

I actually have two phones. I've been carrying a Motorola Droid for about two weeks. There are some things about it that are quite cool: GMail is the best email I've ever used on a mobile device, better than Blackberry and several million times better than email on the iPhone. I love that I can use my Google voice number for all calls, automatically.

Aside from that, though, it feels very, um, Linuxy. And nerdy. And clunky. (I won't even get into how ugly it is next to the iPhone. Some people care about design, and many don't.)

Linux is great, of course. But UI's built on top of Linux tend to be oddly inconsistent, patchwork and fussy. The Android UI, at least the one that Motorola has put together for Droid, feels a lot more like a computer UI than it does a seamless mobile UI. Apple managed to take what a phone UI was like and extend it to do things you wouldn't think you could do with a tiny screen and fat fingers. Android seems much more to have been taken from a computer UI and hammered down to a way you can touch that UI on a tiny screen.

It's hard to describe exactly what things make it seem that way. But probably it comes to things like: too many nested menus; two ways of navigating apps; no direct manipulation to delete an app; and too much awareness that there is a 'file system.' To install music on the Droid, you have to find a special menu, enable and mount the phone as a drive, and then copy mp3 files from your computer to the droid. How many normal people are going to even know what the heck "mount" means?

So, the problem with Paul's warning scenario actually affecting Apple is this: the iPhone is so much better as a device, hardware and software, out of the box, that millions and millions of people will prefer it to other devices. And there's no close second: you have the crappy phones from Samsung and LG, and the meh phones from Nokia, and the almost-good-but-too-geeky phones from Motorola. And they all have different quirks and sizes and input methods. So where will most developers put their time? The ones who actually want to make some money? On the one phone where ALL the screen sizes are the same, and all the APIs are the same.

I wish it weren't so. I wish Apple would think something like "Gee, we are just crushing everybody on industrial design, simple interfaces and marketing. Let's also crush them on making the developers love us too." But they don't seem inclined to care, and I don't really think it will impact their bottom line if they don't.

Motorola: if you want to beat Apple, make one phone. One single phone that is the expression of all the very best your industrial designers can put together, and one UI on top of Android that is the most carefully researched and tested that your UX experts can come up with. Or Samsung or LG, or Nokia. Make one single phone, and make it better every year until it beats the iPhone. Then people will buy it. Then the developers will come. And you can treat them like crap, or not, it doesn't matter.