Apple against the world

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Apple’s iPhone OS unveiling on Thursday was not the kind of Apple Event where the company shows off a brand-new product, exclaims how it’s the best product the company has ever made, and waits for the oohs and ahs of the invited guests.

Yes, iPhone OS 4.0 was the reason Apple invited the crowd to the company’s Cupertino campus, and that new version of the operating system that runs the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad has some promising new features. But Thursday’s event was a bit less about shiny-product Apple and a bit more about strategic technology company Apple.

Combating Android

Apple caught everyone in the smartphone industry flat-footed back in 2007 with the original iPhone. But the iPhone has ignited serious competition in the industry, with Google’s Android operating system fueling a lot of innovation. Android market share is accelerating and Apple has taken lumps for not offering some of the features provided by Google’s open-source operating system for smart phones.

The biggest knock on the iPhone from the Android camp has been multitasking: Android does it, and the iPhone doesn’t. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the average phone consumer doesn’t care about a concept as technical as multitasking. But that same average consumer cares quite a bit about the inability for the music from the iPhone’s Pandora app to keep playing when they switch to Safari or Mail.

As much as I roll my eyes at the content of Motorola’s “Droid Does” campaign for the Droid smartphone, the core message of that campaign is that the iPhone has limits and the Droid has none. (I’d argue that the Droid’s industrial design and the usability of Android are limits, but hey, there’s a reason I’m not in the advertising business.)

So here comes iPhone OS 4.0, with features that are targeted at blunting some of Android’s perceived advantages, chief among them multitasking. On Thursday Apple was able to bring the CEO of Pandora out on stage, to drop some seriously staggering data about the iPhone’s popularity—25 percent of all Pandora’s listening time comes from the iPhone—and then show off a new version of the Pandora app running under iPhone OS 4, happily playing music even while he switched to other apps. Toss in a visit from Skype to trumpet the iPhone’s newfound ability to run its voice-over-IP program in the background and it’s clear that Apple has smacked down one of Android’s advantages.

(And yes, techie types can argue about whether the seven multitasking APIs supported by iPhone OS 4.0 will truly make the iPhone’s multitasking superior to the system used by Android. But will regular consumers care? I kind of doubt it. Pandora will work in the background on the iPhone starting this summer. Simple, clear, and a positive message for Apple.)

App Store arbiter

Of course, one area on which Apple gets beaten up on a regular basis is the App Store. The App Store is an asset for Apple, perhaps its strongest asset. But many critics deride Apple’s policies about what apps it allows in to the store.

This could all be defused, of course, if Apple were to allow what Google does with Android—namely, a system preference buried a few menus down that allows users to install third-party apps that don’t come through Android Market, the Google equivalent of the App Store.

In the Q&A session following Thursday’s event, Ryan Block from GDGT asked Steve Jobs about this very issue: Why not let people who really want to add third-party apps do so? Most consumers would never use the feature, and it would eliminate most criticism of the App Store approval process.

Jobs’ answer was interesting, in that he didn’t offer the possibility that things would change in the future. He essentially said that there’s a porn app store for Android and that Apple doesn’t want that on the iPhone, so “we don’t want to go there.”

Perhaps this means he doesn’t think App Store gatekeeping is really a big issue. I think it’s more likely, though, that Apple would rather be seen as a heavy-handed arbiter of app approvals than be seen as the purveyor of a product that runs bad stuff. If the App Store is Apple’s biggest asset, and Apple’s products are increasingly appreciated in the context of how they run apps, then losing control of the App Store would be tantamount to losing control of the entire iPhone OS platform.

If you haven’t noticed, Apple is not a company that is willing to lose even a tiny bit of control over its products. (It’s what infuriates many of the company’s critics, but it’s also what makes Apple and its products what they are. You can’t have one without the other.)

Blocking out Adobe

Apple’s concern about losing control over its platform reared its head in another, related area on Thursday: its revision of the iPhone Software Developer Kit guidelines to ban all applications developed using systems not approved by Apple.

This move has generally been reported as a poke in the eye of Adobe, which has announced that one feature of its CS5 suite of products will include the ability for Flash developers to compile iPhone versions of their Flash apps.

And yeah, it is that. Apple’s distaste for Flash is real, and as Jobs reiterated Thursday via a one-word answer to a question on the topic, Apple has “no” plans to let it on the iPhone.

Apple doesn’t want Flash-created apps on the App Store for a simple reason: It reduces the iPhone to a lowest-common denominator platform, and at that point Apple loses all control over the iPhone OS experience.

Once developers can create an app in one development environment—Adobe’s—and compile it to run on every smartphone known to humankind, many developers will decide to save themselves a boatload of money and stop developing native apps for the iPhone, Android, and other platforms. They’ll just develop once, for Flash, and let it run anywhere.

Sounds good, but the develop-once-run-anywhere philosophy is something that makes more sense to bean counters and development-environment vendors than it does to platform owners and discriminating users. In the ’90s we were told that Java apps would be the future of software, because you could write them once and deploy them anywhere. As someone who used to use a Java-based Mac app on an almost daily basis, let me tell you: it was a disaster. Java apps didn’t behave like Mac apps. They were ugly and awful and weird, but hey, at least they ran on the Mac.

It’s the same way I feel about Adobe’s AIR environment today. It’s a Flash and/or HTML-based system that lets developers write cross-platform desktop apps. A good example of an Adobe AIR app is TweetDeck. A lot of people like TweetDeck for Mac, and bless ’em. I can only assume they like it because they like its feature set. It’s a horrible Mac app, though. It’s got no menu bar to speak of, a strange and limited preferences window, weird scroll bars... the list goes on. It feels, in short, like a Web app that’s been mashed into a window so that it can pretend to be a native Mac app. And—spoiler alert—that’s because it is.

Apple doesn’t want apps that don’t feel like native iPhone apps on the iPhone. It doesn’t want Adobe to aid developers in creating a world where App X for iPhone and App X for Android are indistinguishable from one another. Apple doesn’t want to introduce new iPhone features and then watch as nobody takes advantage of them because Adobe hasn’t updated its development system yet. Or, worse, watches as Adobe refuses to adopt them because the other operating systems don’t support those features.

If iPhone apps are one of Apple’s greatest assets, a lowest-common-demoninator app world is Apple’s greatest nightmare. Apple wants the iPhone app experience to be created using Apple’s native tools by developers who are engaged with the platform and falling over themselves to support Apple’s latest features. These are the developers who were downloading and installing iPhone OS 4.0 on Thursday and poring over the documentation, getting ready to dig in and start updating their apps for this summer’s release.

I understand the fury at Adobe over Apple’s moves against Flash development on the iPhone. (And I’m sad that this particularly targeted spat may have incalculable fall-out on the rest of the Adobe-Apple relationship, which will potentially impact both companies’ customers down the road.)

It’s got a bit of the feeling of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, but with one key difference: in this scenario, Lucy never asked Charlie Brown to kick that football. Charlie Brown saw a bunch of other kids kicking the football and thought he could run up and kick it too.

Is it mean for Lucy to yank the football away from ol’ Chuck at the last minute? Yeah, absolutely. But it’s Lucy’s football.

Search? That’s so ’00s.

Another bomb lobbed by Steve Jobs on Thursday was aimed right at Google, and not at its Android appendage, but right at its core: search and search-based text advertising.

Here’s what Jobs said:

On the desktop, search is where it’s at. That’s where the money is. But on a mobile device, search hasn’t happened. Search is not where it’s at. People aren’t searching on a mobile device like they do on the desktop. What’s happening is, they’re spending all their time in apps. And this is where the opportunity to deliver advertising is. Not as part of search, but as part of apps.

Translation: Apple thinks that Google’s huge advantage when it comes to advertising on the Web doesn’t necessarily extend to the smartphone. Apple’s take is that users are not searching on the Web so much as they’re using apps to find what they want. And so here comes iAd, Apple’s direct competition to Google and other mobile ad networks.

It was funny sitting in Apple’s presentation theater listening to Jobs speak enthusiastically about iAd. (And make no mistake, this was not Jobs going through the motions—he seemed legitimately excited about the potential of iAd.) Because, let’s face it—it’s hard for most consumers to get excited about new tools to bring us more commercials.

Jobs’ excitement about iAd was coupled with some pretty serious shots at the world of Web advertising. To the delight of pretty much everybody who isn’t in the text-ad business, he slammed a world of Web ads that lack emotion and fail to connect with users. (Translation: Google text ads may do the job, but they aren't any fun.) In Jobs’ vision, good advertising is a rich experience generated by very creative people and appreciated by the audience they’re trying to reach.

We want to change the quality of the advertising as well. Now, we’re all familiar with interactive ads on the Web. They’re interactive, but they are really not capable of delivering emotion. Which is why the majority of ad dollars still flow through television. Because advertisers can deliver an emotional message through television. What we want to do with iAd is deliver interaction, but also deliver emotion.

Ad agencies are super excited, because so far digital ads haven’t been rich enough to warrant having a world-class ad agency. For the first time, they’re seeing how to bring their storytelling skills to digital ads. And they’re really excited about going and hiring a bunch of technical people to create these types of ads, and combine them with their storytelling people. I think this could be a whole new avenue for the advertising agency people. Because for the first time they can take advantage of all those skills.

I know, I know, people actually liking ads? And yet, did you like those John Hodgman and Justin Long ads for Apple? Do some billboards catch your eye? How about rich print advertising? I can’t tell you how many people write to me saying how they really enjoy the advertisements in the print edition Macworld and wish there were more of them!

The point Jobs was making was that advertising doesn’t have to suck. And, by extension, he was saying that Google’s approach to advertising does. Now, I’m pretty sure that lowest-common-demoninator text ads will always be with us, but I agree with Jobs that there’s got to be a place for something richer, too. Especially for big companies (with massive advertising budgets) like the ones Apple used as examples of iAd.

Hysterical complaints about an ad-filled app apocalypse aside (lots of apps already have ads, thank you very much—and it’s the fault of every one of you who see a $3 app on the App Store and complain that it’s way too rich for your blood), what Apple’s trying to do is use the emergence of the App Store and the power of smartphone apps to rewrite the mobile advertising playbook the same way Google changed how advertising on the Web works.

Yeah, in the end it might mean we end up with more ads in apps. But if the ads are better, and they’re easily dismissable, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Apple versus the world

All in all, Thursday’s Apple event was a bit feisty. And the company has certainly been taking its lumps for it. I’ve seen plenty of tongue-clucking and self-serving hysteria from people who say they are now disillusioned with Apple’s behavior in these matters.

To that, I have two comments. First, it’s absolutely appropriate for people to dislike specific strategic moves Apple makes. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them myself, but I think I understand why Apple is making them. (For example, I understand why Apple dumped Macworld Expo. I don’t necessarily agree with that decision, but I do understand why the company made it.)

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