The Walrus Blog

…and Apple Squandered It, Again. The new Google Android pgone

Your humble narrator has been doing some actual engineering lately, for the first time in years. Specifically, I’m writing an application for Google’s Android phones, the first models of which will be available in Canada next week.1 Why Android, you might wonder, instead of Apple’s wildly popular iPhone? Well, I have various motivations, and I may yet pen an iPhone version, but my main reason is very simple: most of the phones of the future will be Androids, not Apples.

Twenty-five years ago, Apple could have licensed its superior operating system to computer manufacturers, killed Microsoft, and conquered the world. Instead they insisted on building their own hardware, keeping their systems hermetically sealed, and maintaining high prices – and found themselves with a whopping 10% of a market they should have dominated. Today they are repeating exactly the same mistake. Android, like Windows, is an operating system, not hardware. Any manufacturer can build an Android phone, customized for any market; and in most of the world, those phones will ultimately supplant the iPhone, just as Windows defeated Macintosh.

Don’t get me wrong. The iPhone is a truly great toy, and its biggest competitor here in the developed world is Canada’s own BlackBerry. Apple and RIM will probably share the lion’s share of the rich-world spoils for years to come. But most of the world is not rich; and yet, cellphones have permeated into most of the poorest shantytowns and remotest villages in the world. In just a few years, smartphones will filter en masse into Africa and China and India too, and most of those phones will be Androids.

It’s not just that they’ll be cheaper. It’s that phones crafted and programmed by rich Western companies come laden with rich Western assumptions. That only one person will use this phone, rather than a whole village. That you have a reliable cellular network. That you can make frequent phone calls and consume bandwidth without caring much about the cost. Phones built for the developing world will be very different indeed.

Sure, an iPhone, like an Android, can be customized via its App Store – but those apps too are written almost exclusively by rich, educated Westerners. Call it technical colonization. Apple, in its infinite wisdom, has dictated that iPhone apps can only be written on Macs, which, thanks to their price, are as rare as unicorns in the developing world. That decision may singlehandedly have narrowed their potential market by a whopping 5 billion customers. I’m sure Apple doesn’t care right now – after all, the poor, by definition, have no money – but check back in 20 years, and they’ll be kicking themselves hard enough to leave divots. The poor won’t be poor forever, and even if only 20% of India and China achieve middle-class status, that’s a market much bigger than the USA.

Right now, a single bright kid in Bangalore can write an Android app and make both available worldwide, and all she needs is a single beat-up computer running Linux.Anyone can write an Android app, on any kind of computer; and if you need a web site or some online middleware to handle the heavy lifting, well, guess what? Anyone can build that, too, thanks to Google’s AppEngine service, which lets anyone anywhere create a Web application and run it on Google’s own servers. For free. (They start charging after 5 million hits per month, but if you’re getting that much traffic, you can afford it.)

Today, right now, a single bright kid in Dar es Salaam or Jakarta or Bangalore can write an Android app and a complete web site to support it, and make both available worldwide; and all she needs is a single beat-up computer running Linux. Eventually, she won’t even need that; she’ll just plug a keyboard and screen into her phone. Maybe that kid is the future. Maybe the age of Western technical hegemony is ending.

Then again, maybe not. There are caveats galore. For one thing, that kid still needs to know what she’s doing. It’s not easy to pick up high-level software-engineering skills in your spare time, from scratch. The current Android documentation is written by highly educated people for highly educated people, with little to no handholding. What’s more, she needs the Internet, which, in Africa at least, remains extremely expensive - and Western web sites are increasingly limiting or cutting off users in the developing world.

But in the end, the developing world’s problems may actually be the salvation of its first generation of software developers. Networked smartphone applications will be such a huge jump from the status quo that even the semi-skilled should be able to wring money out of the Third World’s gross economic inefficiences; and they won’t have much competition, because there won’t be enough money to interest Western companies. Not until the poor become rich, two or three decades from now. Maybe by then Apple will begin to realize what a colossal mistake they have made. Again.

1 Which I’ll be giving away for free, incidentally. Technical readers may be interested in the tech blog I’m writing as I go. Non-software-developers probably shouldn’t click.

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