Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chaos Theory

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that chaos, for lack of a better word, is good. Chaos is right, chaos works. Chaos clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Chaos, in all of its forms; chaos in life, in money, in love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And chaos, you mark my words, will not only save Android, but that other malfunctioning entity called the US cellular industry.

This completely unnecessary riff on Gordon Gekko was inspired by this article, which asserts that Windows Phone will have an advantage over Android because it's less "chaotic". How horrid! That kind of platform lockdown moves Windows Phone onto the iPhone's turf,

The iPhone model (one OS running on one device, all controlled by one company) works for Apple, but I personally think it's a fluke. By launching the first smartphone platform in the multitouch paradigm, Apple snatched up enough of the market to become entrenched, and by the time competitors showed up, Apple was on the second or third revision of the iPhone, giving them a lead that could take a decade to wear off. I would argue that they succeed today in spite of (and certainly not because of!) their locked-down ecosystem. The iPhone hasn't changed significantly since the first revision, and at the rate things are going right now, it might not be premature to label the iPhone a legacy platform.

Android, on the other hand, is chaos. Google all but throws the software out there, yells "Come and get it!", and lets the carriers and manufacturers do whatever they want with it. It's sometimes inconvenient, but it also leads to some really cool stuff. Can you imagine something like the Nook (which secretly runs Android) being built on top of the iPhone OS?

I sometimes joke about Windows Phone copying the iPhone to an astonishing degree, but it still worries me. The iPhone model is something that will work once, for the first company to come up with a revolutionary new paradigm, but after that a single entity can't keep up with the rest of the industry for very long. Microsoft does seem to be doing a lot of things better than Apple (C# doesn't make me want to kill myself the same way Objective-C does, for instance), so Windows Phone is still a compelling platform, but if Microsoft wants long-term viability it's going to have to look beyond what Apple is succeeding at today.

We must remember that Windows - and, hell, the entire concept of an operating system - came into being to manage chaos, not eliminate it. Back in the Bad Old Days, hardware platforms were fairly standardized, and introducing any changes was likely to break existing software. This is where turbo buttons originally came from, and it's not a model we should be aspiring to. Having a number of different hardware profiles may make Android harder for developers to test their apps on, but it also means that the platform is much more flexible, and by forcing developers to account for different hardware profiles, Google is creating a better platform for the long term.

Any Windows program will (with very few exceptions) run on any Windows computer. Microsoft's past success with that model wasn't a fluke - it was a testament to the fundamental power of a model that allows for a wide variety of future hardware improvements. It's interesting to see how closely the development of mobile phones is mimicking the development of PCs 25 years ago; some of the players (like Apple) are even moving into the same positions. Microsoft has already managed to invent the PC once, and I hope that some people at the company remember enough to be able to invent it again.

In the end, it comes down to how mature you think the smartphone market is. If you think most of the innovation has already happened, then bet on the vertically integrated platform (like the iPhone). If you think most of the innovation has yet to happen, then bet on the open, flexible platform (like Android). It's still early enough in Windows Phone's development for Microsoft to make a choice, and I really hope they choose the latter.

1 comment:

Æther said...

Yet here we are and smart phones still can't make me a sandwich. (Ordering one doesn't count.) :(