Google, Apple, and the War for Developers

By  |  Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 10:35 am

On Tuesday morning, months of anticipation, speculation, software controversy, and hardware rumors came to a head as T-Mobile executives and Google’s top brass unveiled the G1, the first “Googlephone.” As reporters and bloggers got their hands on the detailed specifications about the device, the software, and the terms of service, hundreds of inevitable comparisons were drawn between the iPhone and this fledgling product. But the differences between the two platforms go far beyond simple differences in specs.

Google is pursuing a decidedly different market strategy with Android. The brilliance of Apple’s iPhone strategy–besides the fact that the phone itself is so compelling–was in the sequence of announcements. You can bet your last share of Lehman stock that Steve Jobs had the App Store and iPhone SDK planned from the start, but did not release them initially on purpose. Apple first announced the iPhone in January of 2007, wowed the tech community, built up six months of hot anticipation, and released it in June of the same year. Its market share immediately exploded, well beyond initial predictions, grabbing percentage points in the double digits within months.

Eight months after the iPhone’s launch, we received word from Steve that there would be an iPhone SDK, developer tools, impressive built-in hardware capabilities, and an App Store to buy and sell software, all confirming the suspicion that the iPhone was not just a phone, but a software platform. Since the App Store’s release, Apple and its newfound army of iPhone developers have been raking in the cash.

What’s notable here is the sequence of events. Apple announced an exciting new product, built and fed anticipation, grew market share, announced the SDK, and then released the App Store. Each of these steps was dependent on the former. Without iPhone’s market share, the SDK and App Store would not have been nearly such a success. Without the cult of iPhone that Apple grew even before the product was available, the phone’s market share wouldn’t have grown so large so quickly.

Google, unlike Apple, first announced the software, before the hardware. This was a critical mistake in my book, one which may seriously affect the long-term success of Android. While the Android development tools showed an example phone interface for programmers to play with, there was no guarantee of the phone’s capabilities. Apple made the very smart decision to preemptively bring in big-name companies like EA and AOL to develop sample applications at the SDK annoucement, showing off the power of the device. This gave developers a chance to ponder the vast array of possibilities for applications, and four months to develop them. It is only really in the past month that Android developers have gotten any idea of what their prospective platform holds in hardware possibilities. For example, no one wants their application to show sub-par processor performance or leave behind shiny, new features of the phone.

Furthermore, Google and T-Mobile are walking a dangerous line trying to achieve two difficult goals at the same time. Not only will these two companies obviously try to build up a stake for the G1 in the smart phone market, but they must also try to concurrently attract developers to their platform. Right now, Android involves only the promise of an audience, and it’s not asssociated with any game-changing hardware. And that may be a recipe for a tough sell.

Now, this will certainly get easier as more and more consumers adopt the new phones, as they certainly will. But it’s still a very tricky move. To its credit, Google intelligently brought together the members of the Open Handset Alliance, rallying enough allies to attract lots of attention. Not to mention, of course, the fact that we are talking about Google here, a name which carries more weight than Goliath both in the minds of developers and consumers.

Of course, Apple has its advantages, too: Beside the attraction of already-existent hordes of iPhone users, Apple also constructed its SDK to be similar to the OS X development platform, using similar or identical technologies like Core Animation and advanced networking libraries. However, Google does have the upper hand in this arena, at least in theory. Google choose Java as the language for Android and bundled a plug-in for the popular Java IDE, Eclipse. While Apple also bundled a nice suite of tools for its coders, the Java/Eclipse duo has an arguably much wider pool of talent to pick from than coders who have developed for OS X. I can tell you first-hand that there exists almost no recent Comp Sci graduate in the land that has not used Java with Eclipse at least once in college.

In addition, Android carries the label of “open source” to attract free software devotees, and has no cost, cross-platform tools for download on its site. And let us not forget that Android is an operating system, not tied to one device. It will have some appeal that the iPhone won’t as more and more “with Google” devices are released in the upcoming years. Not to mention that Android will be released internationally on a broad scale soon after it hits the United States, a move which Apple waited a year to make.

As different as these two strategies are, however, they’re both completely characteristic of the two companies in question. Google is all about software across many platforms, whether it be programs that run on OS X, Linux, and Windows or Web applications that run in all major browsers. Google puts every ounce of sweat it has into integrating itself further into your online life, and that’s exactly what Android will help them do.

Apple, on the other hand, is all about hardware and software integration. It’s true that Apple designs beautiful hardware, but it’s not a hardware company. It’s also true that Apple designs great software, but it’s not a software company either. The brilliance of Steve Jobs was to tackle both hardware and software design for Apple products. Apple didn’t design a PC and it didn’t design an operating system. Apple orchestrated an experience.

As both companies entice developers with promises of an easy transition to their platforms as well as the promise of profit, the choices that the programming workforce make in this arena will speak volumes about the future of these new mobile platforms.


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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Robert Kurzatkowski Says:

    Excellent article Dave. Looking forward to reading more!

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