UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

The Wow Factor, The Openness, The Developers Environment, …

Posted by Brian Kelly on 3 October 2008

It strikes me that the recent set of comments made to my post on “Google’s G1 Phone: “Innovation For Tech Heads” have wider applicability to the networked development environment.

To summarise some of the issues which were highlighted in the original Guardian review which I cited and have been expanded on in John Naughton’s Google’s Android could smash iPhone’s locked gateway” article published in Sunday’s Observer (28 September 2008):

The Wow factor: Yes, the iPhone clearly wins with its ‘wow’ factor, As the Guardian review admitted the Android phone lacks the “wow factor of the Apple device“.

The usability: The iPhone, like many Apple devices, also has its strengths in its ease-of-use. As Paul Walk has commented “I want a device which ‘just works’“.

The openness of the application environment: As John Naugton describes in his Google’s Android could smash iPhone’s locked gateway article, a strength of the Android device there’s “a row brewing inside Apple’s cosily walled garden“. It seems that “developers are beginning to resent what they see as the company’s dictatorial attitude”. As one commentator puts it: ‘Trying to discern ahead of time [and of development expenditures] what Apple will or won’t accept has become close to impossible, not only because Apple isn’t talking about it, but also because it won’t let anyone else talk about it. All apps store dealings with developers are covered by a non-disclosure agreement“‘.

The potential for power users: Now the geeks will argue that the iPhone’s walled-garden is a non-issue as it’s possible to ‘jail-break’ the device to allow the installation of applications which may not be available via the Apple store. However this approach is clearly not one which the majority of users would be happy with, and conflicts with the need for a device which ‘just works’.

The hardware environment: The iPhone, like Macintosh hardware, is only manufactured by Apple. The Andoid phone, in comparison, can be made by any manufacturer. This competition should help to bring down prices, which will be beneficial to the consumer (as Stuart Smith pointed out to make use of a ‘free’ iPhone “you are still looking about £810 over 18 months“). So much for social inclusion and widening participation!

Now as Mike Ellis argues “most users couldn’t give a stuff about the closed nature of their devices, applications OR data. Facebook, iPods, iPhone, any gaming console – the list goes on. These all seem to be pretty popular, however much us IT types continue to shout about the dangers of closedness.” And I think he’s right – the IT development community tends to focus on the backend development processes and policies which are not necessarily of great concern to the majority of users. But even if we accept John Naughton’s premise that ‘Google’s Android could smash iPhone’s locked gateway’ we need to emphasise the importance of word ‘could‘. It was not so long ago when people argued that Google’s Open Social widget environment would blow away the closed development environment provided by Facebook. But that, I would argue, hasn’t happened (and, indeed, Scott Wilson wrote a blog post back in November 2007 in which he described why he was singularly unimpressed by Open Social).  Let’s be honest and recognise that both the iPhone and Facebook are very popular with large numbers of users – and let’s acknowledge that the development community can learn from the popularity of these closed environments.

And let’s remember the point Mike Ellis made when he said “I find it sad when developers seem to think that any real users actually *care* about what’s under the hood ;-)“.   But why do I think that Mike isn’t just referring to the mobile phone debate when he makes this point?

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7 Responses to “The Wow Factor, The Openness, The Developers Environment, …”

  1. Mike Ellis said

    Brian, you know me too well :-)

    I’ve spent a decade in the web space (more frightening than anything to crow about..) and have worked in both lightweight and enterprise environments during that time. Over and over I’ve asked myself questions about the meaning of technology, where the complexity comes from, and what the bits under the hood bring to the party.

    Ten years further on, I’m not really much closer to answering the question, except now I’m more dogmatic about what I always believed all along: the end-user is absolutely *everything* in this equation. My take is: users aren’t just quite important, really important or reasonably vital: they are everything, bar none. The point at which your application, website, hardware, software etc pokes above the sea is infinitely more important than the huge great hulk of [whateveritisthatdrivesthetech] hiding underneath.

    This is absolutely NOT (x100) to belittle what developers (or geeks) do or how they do it but it absolutely IS a plea that however many of the “which particular schema/hardware/OS/packetshaping/django/blah.2.0″ conversations we techtypes have, we keep at all times the non-technical, real-world users in our minds. My post How did IT end up like this? expands on where I believe most users are.

    Important as ALL these conversations are, I still think the main issue we have is in the soft stuff: communicating better what we do with those people who would really benefit from it.

    I’ve got a new post written on this but the title is so rude I haven’t yet been ballsey enough (or drunk enough..) to push publish. Maybe one day soon :-)

  2. I think it was the film Wall Street that gave us the scary line “Greed is good”. Perhaps (a little less morally deviant) I would suggest variety is good. When one company or philosophy dominates too much in their way then we end up stiffled and development and end user suffers.

    Is the end-user Queen? Probably yes, certainly in current education practice where we tend to try to encourage learner engagement (of course this hasn’t always been the case). So does that mean it doesn’t matter how the devices or software is produced? I would argue No, it does matter.

    It matters that we keep a health bubbling pot. Education is a recipe that I hope will never be finished. In digital education, with the current obsession of centralised VLE’s – which aren’t virtual and one supplier fits all we run the risk of losing the imagination and innovation which will help take us into the mid-21st century.

    From a user perspective the system doesn’t matter I agree with that view but from an educational grand plan perspective then lack of choice in education is limiting. I think it is exciting times ahead for digital education but they will be difficult. If we really want things like personalization, lifelong learning and true education for all then we need flexible development and adoption and at the moment education is poorly equipment to react with the speed and agility required to keep up.

    We need to be careful that we don’t become populist for the sake of it, simply adopting systems because they are in mass use. Ideally we should consider why they are popular and then ask if they have educational value. Then if they do; adopt and adapt. One of our problems is that at the moment the pace of technolgical change is too fast for the education project mindest. By the time proposals are written and funding secured, the world is already moving on. We need to find a way of solving that so we can keep up and adapt and adopt more quickly.

  3. Brian, I believe you are missing the point about the openness of the platform.

    It’s got nothing to do with what end users want and everything to do with what everything to do with what developers want. It is the developers who make devices usable and increase the number of users.

    Consider this, a user wants an alternative to iTunes for some reason (maybe easy access to the millions of independant label songs available on eMusic.com would be a good start). Apple are not about to create that software, indeed they have shown that they are willing to block the distribution of software that could migrate users away from their own software.

    The end result is that anyone who wants this feature will think twice about an iPhone.

    So where do they go? One of the alternatives – which one? The one with the application for them. Since Android is open anyone can write a suitable client, in the above use case the most likely would be eMusic themselves since they stand to make profit from it.

    As for your comments about open social. You can hardly claim it has failed when the standard is only at version 0.8.

    Today pretty much all of the significant social networks except Facebook have adopted it (http://code.google.com/apis/opensocial/partners.html) and there are now an estimated 250 million users with access to open social containers (compared to 60 million on facebook).

    There are now a handful of open source containers for building your own Open Social networks so that you can leverage those 250 million users.

    Sure there are nowhere near the 15,000 apps that facebook has, but it’s only just starting. For those looking to make a profit do you start with a potential market of 250M or 60M?

    In the case of Android it is hoped that developers will come as there are limited alternatives, in the case of Open Social it’s hoped that more users will attract more developers. In both cases the openness is important for the developers not for the users. The users care about what the developers do for them.

  4. Hi Ross
    When you say “It is the developers who make devices usable and increase the number of users” I would argue that you are wrong.
    I would argue that you are wrong. It’s actually the marketing departments and those who are involved in business deals who increase the numbers of users, not the developers. You just have to look at the success of Microsoft, Facebook and VHS to see the truth of this.
    You’re on better grounds when you use the words ‘hope’ and ‘hoped’ in your final paragraph. Openness of a service is no guarantee that users will find the service appealing, no mater how much we would like this not to be the case. Although, like you’ I hope that it will be possible to “leverage those 250 million users” of services such as Open Social.

  5. [...] by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 15 October 2008 In a recent comment Mike Elllis reflected on the meaning of technology, where the complexity comes from, and what the [...]

  6. Brian,

    You say “I would argue that you are wrong. It’s actually the marketing departments and those who are involved in business deals who increase the numbers of users, not the developers. You just have to look at the success of Microsoft, Facebook and VHS to see the truth of this.”

    I do agree with the justification of your statement (i.e. marketing departments/business leaders make attract users), but not with the statement itself (i.e. “you are wrong”). If the marketing people have nothing useful to market they will fail – so the first potential point of failure is with the developers not the marketeers.

    Interestingly, your two software examples (MS and Facebook) are both becoming increasingly open in order to attract more developers so that (in my opinion) their marketing departments have more output from developers.

  7. [...] on Google’s G1 Phone: “Innovation For Tech Heads” in September 2008 and a follow-up post on The Wow Factor, The Openness, The Developers Environment, … published the following month. That debate appeared to conclude with a concensus of the benefits of [...]

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