A quick reality check for Vic Gundotra

Something which occurred to me shortly after watching the now famous Google IO Android keynote. At one point, when about to demonstrate tethering, Vic Gundotra says“if you’re like me, you have a plethora of devices you carry around with you. And all those devices shouldn’t mean added complexity and yet another bill, right ?”.

OK, now, two things.

First : as far as I’m concerned, the added complexity comes from having to turn on a second device and set it up in order to get connectivity on the first. If by having an extra bill I can have that second device connect all on its own, I prefer that option. I already have several bills anyway, always will, it’s manageable.

Second : Android is meant as a competitor for the iPhone OS, therefore is meant to appeal to normal people, as in “non-geeks”. So a Google geek introducing a feature to other Google geeks at a geek conference by saying “if you’re like me…” kind of misses the mark. Yes, this is a tech conference, but that doesn’t change the fact this is supposed to be an end-user product, and if googlers use their own taste to determine their feature roadmap, they might encounter some problems.

The final irony is that this reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a looong time ago (say 10+ years). At that time, mobile phones were dumb, had tiny b&w screens, and the whole contact/calendar stuff was either done on paper (ok you had a lousy contact list on the phones already) or on a Palm Pilot. I was carrying one of those along with my mobile, and was wondering why my friend was no longer carrying his. He answered he preferred to travel light with only a single device, rather than “looking like Luke Skywalker” (think Luke’s belt in Episode IV here). My friend’s name was C├ędric.

Android vs. iPhone : here we go…

As everybody could see, one thing obvious from Google I/O 2010 is : Google is after Apple. At least on the mobile market, and, with the announcement of Google TV, on the home appliance one too (as nascent as this one is for both of them).

It’s a bit puzzling to see these two companies at each other’s throat. They’re both supposed to be the “cool guys”. Google’s arch-enemy was Microsoft, since it wanted to be on the desktop (although so far they’re not making much progress on that front). But clearly, they both view the mobile market as a priority, and they both want the top spot. It’s hard to say which one fired first, apparently Google had intentions toward that market long ago (Android has been public for 18 months, but Google had been working on it 2.5 years before that). If we take at face value Steve’s words at the beginning of the famous keynote in 2007 when he introduced the original iPhone, Apple had been working on it for at least 2 years before that (probably more).

Anyway, watching Vic Gundotra’s Day 2 keynote, is most interesting. Consider the many quips at Apple (push notification as a palliative to lack of multitasking, tethering on the iPad, etc…). So yes, the first thing to get from that is that the two companies are no longer friends. The second thing is, Google has to position Android against iPhone OS. Even though Apple isn’t the market leader (that’s still RIM), at the moment it’s the most visible competitor and nobody expects RIM to last much longer at the top spot). Therefore they have to offer features that iPhone OS doesn’t : Flash, tethering, WiFi sync, openness, rather than features which RIM doesn’t (like, er… oh yeah, a UI which doesn’t look like it’s a decade old).

And here is the interesting part of this confrontation. Apple never adds a feature to a product unless it fits the “big picture”. It has to be integrated with the rest, to blend in. That means they often lose in the usual “feature list check” comparison. But they almost always win the “overall design” one. This way of doing is one of the reasons why they’re not leaders on the PC market, but it seems to have worked for the music player market. So I wonder what will happen next. Will Android overtake the iPhone like Windows overtook the Mac, or will the iPhone remain the iPod of smartphones ? The former seems pretty likely, given that, just like Windows, Android is available on virtually any hardware platform willing to use it. If not features, that alone should decide of the issue of this fight. It has apparently already happened in the US. Yes, this should be taken with a grain of salt, namely that with the almost-announced iPhone v4, it’s expected that sales of the iPhone 3GS are low. But I doubt it will make much of a difference in the long run : dozens of devices on many carriers, vs. a couple of devices on a single (for now?) – lousy carrier. Yes, elsewhere in the world we don’t have to suffer the scourge of AT&T – here in France the iPhone is available to all carriers (Orange, SFR, Bouyges) – but I remain sceptical that it will make a difference.

The only limiting factors I see against this is that users may still prefer Apple’s “experience” – something which operates smoothly, shielding them from security issues, and also potentially offensive content – the latter probably not so enticing to everybody, actually. Will iTunes Store elusive “adult” category finally be instated ?

Google simply can’t replicate this experience, since it has no control on how Android is used (and that’s the whole point of the thing). It doesn’t have the skills, either. Actually, just watching the keynote on YouTube is a perfect example of the difference between the two companies. The keynote is split into a bunch of 10mn long videos, which you have to chase through a rather long list of similarly-named ones, all over YouTube’s usual feature-full page. Apple’s version of this is a single Quicktime video, either directly from Apple’s homepage or in iTunes, as a podcast.

One thing worthy of note, though, is that Google’s offering of “freedom” as opposed to Apple’s walled garden is highly debatable. Yes, through an iPhone or an iPad you can only install apps that Apple has sanctioned, and you’ll never see anything Flash-based (both of these have positive sides, but that’s irrelevant here). However you do own your data. When you plug your iPhone in for sync, it’s backed up locally on the computer you’re synchronizing with. With Android the backup is done on Google’s servers. More generally, you need a Google account, and all your personal data – contacts, calendar, etc… is on Google’s system. I’m not aware of an alternative to this state of things with Android. Apple has MobileMe, but you’re under no obligation to use it.