Open Is Good, Usable Is Better…

… even in the Mobile space.

Unless you’re living in a Faraday cage, you’ve seen the Internet hype around Android, Google’s mobile platform. The iPhone-alternative seekers and FOSS evangelists are engaging in a collective circle-jerk around it, because it has the potential to “beat the iPhone” and bring open-source to mobile. I think it will definitely have a profound impact on mobile devices, and there’s no disputing that an open mobile platform is exciting, especially one backed by Google. But guys, I’m not ready to circle up just yet. My apologies.

Yes, Open Source is definitely awesome, but its potential for “beating the iPhone” is limited. If there’s one way that Apple humiliates everyone else, it’s with their ability to make something universally usable. Personally, I love all that Android’s open nature has to offer the hardcore power users and developers. Open-source is great, offering infinite freedom for niche geeks like you and I, but that doesn’t translate to something that’s going to make it in the mainstream market.

For example, desktop environments on Linux are completely open, and have (relaively recently) made heretofore-unimaginable strides in terms of presentation and usability. Still, nobody can point one DE that can hold a candle to the fit, finish, and consistency of Mac OS X’s interface.

The contrast becomes even more stark when you drill down to the individual application level, where several heuristically-different UI frameworks and the personal tastes of countless developers come together to create a complete lack of unity and cohesiveness. The likelihood of two popular Linux GUI applications behaving similarly (let alone communicating with each other with behaviors like drag-and-drop, copy/paste, or notification) is very small. I’m assuming that the Android platform will officially recommend and include only one UI framework, which will help a lot, but you’ve still got the infinitely diverse preferences of the developers (most of whom have no usability training) to deal with.

Once the iPhone Cocoa SDK ships, the open-source nature of Android is going to become a much less interesting benefit of the platform. Right now, I have no official way to make a desktop-quality application for the iPhone. That will no longer be true in February. Once I can make apps for iPhone (and port my existing Desktop apps to it) with Objective-C and Cocoa, the fact that the frameworks and core services are closed will matter very little to the vast majority of developers.

It will matter even less to the end users, who are only concerned that they are provided with a polished, unified, intuitive experience; one such as that which has been promised for so long by the open-source community, and that which has actually been delivered — time and time again — by Apple.

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