When Steve Jobs talks, people listen. Of course, that’s no guarantee they’ll like what he says, especially when it’s their business he’s ragging on. The Apple CEO took advantage of his rare appearance on the company’s quarterly financial results conference call to blast a number of competitors, including BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion and Google.
But in business, as in politics, it’s all about spin, so the injured parties have gone on the defensive to attempt and wrest control of the conversation—some more successfully than others.
Research In Motion
“We’ve now passed RIM. And I don’t see them catching up with us in the foreseeable future.” Jobs didn’t mince words in regards to the BlackBerry manufacturer, arguing that the company would have to leave its comfort zone and become a software platform proprietor in order to survive in the current market.
RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie wasted little time in posting a rebuttal on the company’s blog, taking issue with everything from Jobs’s dismissal of the 7-inch tablet form factor to his recasting of Google’s “open versus closed” argument. But at thrust of Balsillie's argument was Apple’s so-called “reality distortion field.”
“We think many customers are getting tired of being told what to think by Apple,” Balsillie writes. “As usual, whether the subject is antennas, Flash or shipments, there is more to the story and sooner or later, even people inside the distortion field will begin to resent being told half a story.”
As evidence of Apple’s selective arguments, Balsillie says that the company skewed numbers by comparing its quarter, which ended in September, with RIM’s most recent quarter, which ended in August, ignoring “that industry demand in September is typically stronger than summer months.” The RIM co-CEO also says that the company anticipates between 13.8 and 14.4 million BlackBerries to be shipped in RIM’s current quarter, which concludes in late November.
Some of the arguments raised in Balsillie’s post ring a bit hollow. For example, the co-CEO argued that RIM “knows” that 7-inch tablets will be “a big portion of the market,” but given that the company has yet to ship any tablet, it seems somewhat more presumptuous than Jobs's argument, which is backed by more than 4 million iPad sales. And in response to Jobs’s flippant remarks on Adobe Flash, Balsillie added that “customers want to fully access the overwhelming majority of web sites that use Flash”—this despite the fact that though both RIM and Adobe have promised Flash support on the BlackBerry, it has yet to materialize.
One point that Balsillie didn’t even bother to try and address was the disparity in third-party software: Jobs touted the more than 300,000 apps available for iOS and suggested that RIM would have a hard time convincing developers to add the BlackBerry in addition to developing for iOS and Android. Balsillie writes in his post only that developers “want more options,” without particularly addressing why the current and previous versions of BlackBerry’s OS didn’t seem to offer a convincing alternative to Android and iOS.
Still, with repeated references to the “reality distortion field” trope and his dig at the iPhone 4 antenna issue, Balsillie’s statement comes perilously close to looking like the resentful arguments of a smartphone platform that some recent surveys show rapidly dwindling. There’s no question that Balsillie’s no less trying to distort reality—it just turns out that Apple and Steve Jobs are better at it.
“We see tremendous value at having Apple, rather than our users, be the systems integrator,” said Jobs on Monday. “We think this a huge strength of our approach compared to Google’s: when selling the users who want their devices to just work, we believe that integrated will trump fragmented every time.”
The peak of Jobs’s screed on Android cuts to the heart of the philosophical differences between Apple and Google. And while Apple put its best foot forward in having its argument made by Steve Jobs, Google’s champion came in the rather ill-advised form of its vice president of engineering Andy Rubin. Rubin, a former Apple engineer, went on to found Android, which was later acquired by Google. Rubin took the opportunity to try and rebut Jobs in a mere 140 characters with a tweet from his brand new Twitter account:
the definition of open: “mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git://android.git.kernel.org/platform/manifest.git ; repo sync ; make”
For those not well versed in the arcane verses of the command line, Iconfactory chief developer Craig Hockenberry posted this translation:
Andy Rubin’s tweet for non-techies: Make a folder for the Android project; Download the source code into that folder; Build the product.
Of course, the very fact that Rubin’s response had to be translated into English doesn’t do much to counter Steve Jobs’s argument that consumers prefer an integrated, “it just works” product. It also potentially reinforces Jobs’s point that Android is a heavily fragmented platform, given that the nub of Rubin’s tweet is that anybody can download and adapt Android to their needs.
There’s a reason you don’t necessarily let just anybody make public statements for your company: what seems like a really convincing argument to an engineer isn’t necessarily the kind of thing a consumer is going to appreciate—or perhaps even understand.
As one example of the difficulty developing for a platform as fragmented as Android, Jobs cited Twitter client developer TweetDeck, which recently launched its software on Android. But this is one place where Jobs’s curveball may not have broken quite the way he intended.
“Twitter client [TweetDeck] recently launched their app for Android,” said Jobs. “They reported that they had to contend with more than a hundred different versions of Android software on 244 different handsets. The multiple hardware and software iterations present developers with a daunting challenge.”
That comment seems to have stemmed from a chart published by the TweetDeck folks showing the huge number of Android handsets and operating system versions used by their beta testers. (And it's an astounding number: hundreds of phones running dozens of operating system variants.)
But TweetDeck CEO Iain Dodsworth chimed in on Twitter to say that Jobs took the data out of context, writing “Did we at any point say it was a nightmare developing on Android? Errr nope, no we didn’t. It wasn’t.” As the initial TweetDeck blog post says, “From our perspective it’s pretty cool to have our app work on such a wide variety of devices and Android OS variations.” Dodsworth later added that the company had only two developers working on the Android version.
Does it invalidate Jobs’s point that Android is fragmented? Not necessarily: there’s clearly a lot of proliferation of Android hardware and software, and a couple of high profile cases of incompatible software goes a long way to making Jobs’s argument for him. But TweetDeck‘s response shows that perhaps the endeavor isn’t quite as difficult as the Apple CEO would have people believe.