Platform Wars: The Next Generation

Two approaches in a nutshell

Once again I have been very very absent for a long time. This whole work/life/whatever thing is pretty easy to choke on and sadly its the blogs that get cut first. So to the web spiders, spam linkers and relatives that read this – my apologies. I’ll endeavour to do better.

I’ve been provoked back into ranting buy the current Apple/Google/Adobe thing. In terms of Adobe, they began to kick Apple when it was down in the 90s and have let their Mac software portfolio drift, being the last developers to fully adopt OS X even. Flash is a bloated relic that can choke even the latest PCs from time to time, so one wonders what it will really be like on the go. The sooner it can be shifted from its dominance in web video and animation, the better. It is true that you really do need Flash today to have anything like a true ‘full’ web experience, no matter what Apple says. Given the number of iThings out there though it will force an evolution away from this old ‘skip intro’ provoking bloatware.

The Steve’s wonderful exchange with Ryan Tate also offered some insights into the thinking behind the lack of Flash. Ryan did not seem to realise though that the whole ‘Freedom from Porn’ thing is widely misinterpreted – and it is this misinterpretation that is at the core of a lot of anti-Apple ire. You can look at as much porn as you want on the web – Apple just does not want any porn apps on its platform or store. Much like Sony or Nintendo or Microsoft’s consoles in fact. The great Video Game Crash of 1983 also informs some thinking here – Atari lost control of its platform which was sunk to a large degree by garbage games and, yes, porn.

The Steve does have a point about losing platform control and the dangers of third party frameworks. The original Mac alienated and upset many programmers and DIY tech types because you had to use the Macintosh Toolbox API set (in ROM) and could not just code wild and free in assembly language etc like on the PC. Hardware modification beyond memory expansion was not really allowed. The Toolbox had guidelines too, but they were widely ignored to the point that the Mac’s old fashioned co-operative multitasking model and shared memory space led to increasing instability. Devs also widely used third party IDEs like CodeWarrior which could be a couple OS and hardware revisions behind, leading to compatibility and support issues all over the place. The Mac got worse and worse as a platform till OS X because Apple lost control of it.

On a deeper level though, you can detect a major anti-Apple backlash developing across the tech blogosphere in favour of Google’s Android platform. The real Fake Steve Jobs, the wonderful Dan Lyons, has opined on why he’s switching from the iPhone to Android
and makes some convincing parallels with the early days of computing, where Apple blew its lead by refusing to licence its technology and locking others out of its platform. However, Google is effectively a monopolist in web search and ads, just as Adobe has been in web video and authoring tools. To see themselves as tech insurgents freeing us from The Steve’s pornless, locked down iWorld is a bit silly. It is also arrogant as it assumes the very underrated RIM and Microsoft will not have much to say here either. Developer comments in the Kara Swisher piece I link to there also are a reality check. 60 devices, all of whom will be running subtly different builds, could be a fat recipe for crashes, confusion and mediocrity.

In the end though, Steve’s vision of computing has always been much more controlled, sanitised and design led than anyone else from his era – or the new generation of Web2 DIY hack it techfolk either. That is the source of the militancy – they want total freedom and hack-ability with religious fervour. Any platform that does not allow it must be evil and every alternative to it celebrated. I’m sympathetic to a lot of their sentiment – but it is undermined by the fact there is a choice out there for everyone and vis a vis smartphones they are a making a classic‘Category Error’. These devices are not PCs just as a game console is not a PC. If you want to make a game for a console, you have to use a certain set of approved tools and the platform vendor will have some veto over what you do with them. They also will take a cut of what you make in exchange for giving you access to it in the first place. That’s life and it is like that because of what happened to Atari. If Nintendo won’t allow you to do what you want to do, make it for another platform that will.

The original Apple II (which Cory Doctrow cited in his iconic The iPad and Steve are Evil piece), came with a set of full schematics so you could hack it into anything, add expansion cards to measure humidity, whatever.

Totally wonderful, funky and free.

Steve’s Apple //c had all you need in one lovely box – all you can expand is the memory but that is it, and it’s designed to be perfectly stable and reliable forever. A totally different vision and one far closer to game consoles and consumer electronics than conventional PC thinking.

Here are the two Steve’s with their visions for all to see in one vintage photo. The original Woz designed, wonderful, funky Apple I set against the //c. It is no secret and nothing to be militant about. iPad and iPhone will max at sub 20% share of their markets so it is NOT oh my God Evil The Man etc etc like Microsoft, Google or anything else. Just a very, very different approach to computing and a beloved minority platform that reflects it. We’ve all got a choice if we disagree.

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