The Invisible Hand of Mobile Platforms

Given no shortage of commentary on iOS 7, I’ll skip whether or not I like it and instead jump to the part that interests me: Why the fuss?

As an Android fan, iOS releases are interesting primarily as entertainment, and for a preview of emerging ideas that can affect all platforms. Naturally, I think the arrow has been going the other way lately, but that’s neither here nor there. It isn’t even relevant.

The war between iOS and Android is a contest between two viewpoints — and between two economic systems. Android operates as something like a market, while Apple runs as a planned economy.

Consider keyboards. iOS ships with a keyboard. You can have any keyboard you want, as long as it’s that one. The advantage is that you can pick up any iPhone and know exactly how the keyboard works. You also can rest assured that no one has a better or worse keyboard than you.

The disadvantage is that the keyboard gets better at a pace Apple decides upon, and contains only the ideas Apple generates. Given my experience owning iOS and Android devices over the years, I have to question the value of Apple’s monopoly power over their system’s keyboard. Swiping has been a wonderful addition to mobile text entry, but Apple didn’t think it up, and if you own an iPhone, you can’t use it.

Google takes a different approach. Android comes with a default keyboard. It has steadily improved over the years, but in the old days, it was mediocre. This wasn’t a problem for the motivated user, because Android allows most of its components to be replaced. Download a new keyboard, turn it on, select it, and you’re on your way. It isn’t just easy, it’s possible.

The point isn’t that the built-in keyboard is or isn’t better. The point is that any given Android keyboard is better than the default iOS keyboard, because of this intense competition.

It makes an important point, though: Any choice made by Google can be overridden, not just by the user, but also by the manufacturer or the carrier. Google’s choices set a tone, but are at most a suggestion. The result is inconsistent experiences, and, at times, a mess. That’s the down side.

The upside is that Google can’t solve these problems with force; it must resort to persuasion. With so many ways for Google’s choices to be overridden, victory comes through surpassing the competition. Android is so flexible, I’ve replaced my home screen, lock screen, keyboard and more over the years. I’m back on the regular keyboard, because Google made it better, to the point that I liked it the most. But I could change my mind tomorrow.

The point isn’t that the built-in keyboard is or isn’t better. The point is that any given Android keyboard is better than the default iOS keyboard, because of this competition. I’ve used both, and there is just no comparison. It seems strange to have to persuade an American that market competition is good, yet I do it every day.

As the sole vendor of iOS devices, Apple has chosen to work more like a controlled or planned economy, and there are no outs. If you don’t like the keyboard, too bad, that’s the keyboard. No one can make a better keyboard, so Apple has no need to compete, and hence no incentive to do better unless customers abandon the platform. Customers can’t get a different phone unless they adopt an entirely separate platform and replace all their apps and content. In other words, you must sell all your possessions and leave the country.

If your customers have no choice in the matter, how good does your browser or mail client realistically need to be? Precisely good enough to prevent defections from the platform.

Nobody questions the value of having car companies at each other’s necks. Today’s cars are safer, quieter, faster, and just plain better than the cars of the past. The worst car you can buy today is better than most good cars of yesteryear. That such quality arises from competition is no accident.

And I think this is why there is so much drama around Apple design changes: Whatever Apple does is what you’ll have to live with, period, end of story, so you’d better hope you like it. Apple customers are living in a planned economy, and quietly suffering the consequences.

I’m not here to advocate that all iOS customers should jump ship to Android, though I think many would like it better. Nor am I arguing that Apple should abandon its design vision or priorities and adopt those of Google, or Microsoft, or anyone else. I’m merely here to argue that Apple should adopt a free-market attitude toward its platform. Ferocious competition and choice will accelerate improvements, allow disgruntled customers to solve their own problems, and put more pressure on Android. And there would be less for iPhone users to fret about.

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