Memo to Steve Jobs: "Open" and "Closed" Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

Last Updated Oct 20, 2010 8:27 AM EDT

Steve Jobs spent five minutes trashing competitors Google (GOOG) and RIM during a surprise appearance on Apple's (AAPL) earnings call last night. As you'd expect, he had the reality distortion field cranked up to 11.

Jobs acknowledged that Android and Apple are competing for leadership in the mobile market, but said that the dichotomy of open versus closed systems is a "smokescreen." The real difference, according to Jobs, is Android's "fragmented" ecosystem of multiple devices versus Apple's "integrated" approach of a single device.

Don't be fooled. The open versus closed debate is real, and it has nothing to do with fragmentation.

Jobs said that Google's claim to be open was "disingenuous." Google's VP of engineering (and former Apple worker bee) Andy Rubin tweeted a response to Steve Jobs last night:

The definition of open: "mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git://android.git.kernel.org/platform/manifest.git ; repo sync ; make"
Translating from the geek here, Rubin is saying that anyone can copy, hack, develop or create their own version of Android. Apple most certainly does not make its iOS freely available in the same way.

Jobs said that the open vs. closed debate was a smokescreen, but trying to change the subject to fragmented versus integrated systems is the real snow job. Jobs is correct to point out that because Android runs on many different devices and has more versions operating at the same time, it is more difficult and expensive for developers to create software that works for the mass market on Android than on Apple's iOS.

But last night Jobs used Tweetdeck as an example of company that had a horrible time trying to create apps for Android. It was true that Tweetdeck had written about the 244 different devices they had to consider while developing for Android. But Tweetdeck CEO Ian Dodsworth took issue with Jobs' characterization of the company's post:

Did we at any point say it was a nightmare developing on Android? Errr nope, no we didn't. It wasn't.
Developers certainly need to consider fragmentation when developing, and Jobs is right that the battle for mindshare among developers is crucial to the success of a mobile OS. But developers also have to consider Apple's strict and often arbitrary standards for getting their applications into its store. With Android they can create and sell their apps without anyone's approval.

Prominent venture capitalist Fred Wilson wrote a blog post yesterday about the competition between Android and Apple.

I am encouraging every company we work with to invest as heavily in Android as they invest in iPhone/iPad. I actually think they should invest more because Android is still wide open and the iPhone/iPad marketplaces are leaderboard driven and the leaders have been established and it's hard to crack into the top ten anywhere. iPhone and iPad have been amazing products that have opened new markets. But I do not think they will own either market in a few years. Android will.
Apple's closed, integrated system will continue to achieve enviable profits and control the luxury end of the mobile market. And Android's open fragmented system will win the mass market, just as Microsoft's PC overtake Apple two decades ago. That's no smoke and mirrors.

Listen to Jobs get it all mixed up about mobile OS.

  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.