It’s that time of year again. Apple’s WWDC was just 2 weeks ago and Google’s I/O conference is starting in less than 24 hours. From the way these 2 tech behemoths manage their main interaction with the swarms of people who make their products what they are we can get a much better insight into how they work, how they’re and how they think than by examining anything else.
Everyone knows Steve Jobs was a control freak, there is no news in that. Steve Jobs took secrecy and attention to detail to a level rarely seen outside of Fort Meade or CERN. This blend of secrecy, care of the minutiae and technical knowhow are what made Apple the company it is today. Apple designs great products that are extremely well integrated at all levels. I sit here writing this on my MacBook Pro that I got because I wanted a computer that would give me the design aesthetic of Apple and the flexibility to do almost anything on it. There is no application that I can think of that I can’t run here if I want to. This juxtaposition of open – anyone can write or install what they want including Windows and Linux – and closed – Apple is the only one that makes this hardware – is what makes this a great computer.
In the translation to the mobile world that wonderfully balanced juxtaposition got lost in the scuffle. I can’t put anything I want on an iPhone – I can only run applications that Apple has approved, and the approval process can be capricious and petty - without hacking the phone. Same for the iPod Touch and iPad. This step towards a more closed system has been evident for years – some might say since the argument that Jobs and Woz had as to how many expansion slots would be in the Apple II. It grew more evident as Apple began the slow withdrawal from all events that they didn’t organize – CES, MacWorld Expo, and Computex to name a few. While just a few years ago it would have been possible to see Apple booths and hear Apple keynotes at these conventions, now you only hear them at WWDC.
WWDC is as close to a closed event as you can have for something that is nominally open to the public. Tickets for this year’s event sold out in less than 1 hour. Press entrance is only for the keynote address and even then is invitation only. The lucky few developers who managed to score tickets are required to sign NDAs – the only information that leaves WWDC is the keynote. And the keynote leaves tape-delayed. Yes you can see the keynote online now, but Apple did not live stream it. Bloggers at the event did try to live blog it – and many did an admirable job – but seeing the retina display MacBook Pro was limited to those in attendance for a while.
Google started with the basic idea that an index of websites – a phonebook like structure – was not the right way to go. Websites were changing and new ones started too fast for this to be a practical idea, yet this was how the top search engines were working at the time. After becoming one of the most popular search engines around Google figured out that it’s business wasn’t search – it was advertising. Google’s entire business plan can be summed up as “the more people use the internet, the more money we’ll make.” With this in mind Google gave its employees “20% time”, time to work on whatever itch they had.
This served 2 practical purposes. First, it let those developers scratch those itches and be happier. Second, great programs come about by people – software engineers – scratching their own itch and discovering that lots of other people had them. Some of the products that we use on a daily basis like GMail and Google Maps came out of this 20% time. Google felt that the more open everything was, the more everyone could do what they wanted, the more people would use the internet and, as a result, the more ads Google would sell.
And then came Android. Android gave Google a way to give people ads in their pockets. It gave Google more access to data about the users because it came in from the most personal computer we use – our phones. Matching this with the results that Google saw from their 20% time and a genuine belief in the need for open and strong standards in technology, Google left Android as an open source product. They let anyone develop for it taking only a nominal fee for the right to sell it in their store. Google makes its presence felt at almost every conference they can get to – from CES to Mobile World Congress to their own I/O conference.
Google I/O is truly a conference for developers. While it sold out quickly – in about 20 minutes – even those not lucky enough to grab a ticket can still see what’s going on through live streaming of many of the conference sessions as well as the keynote. They even go beyond that in promoting Google I/O Extended events around the world. Google I/O Extended events are, essentially, events where developers can go and meet up and watch the live streaming of the keynotes and other sessions and figure out how they apply to them. NDAs from Google at a conference, not going to happen.
From the way that Apple and Google handle events and public relations we can see the real differences between the two. Apple promoting a closed, secretive system where only the lucky few get the head’s up on what’s coming down the pipe and Google promoting open standards and systems where everyone is involved in the process. I’m not necessarily saying that one is better than the other. I’m definitely not saying there is no middle ground. If you want middle ground, look at Microsoft – they license their software while keeping a (relatively) consistent experience for the user on a variety of different hardware platforms. Take a good luck at how the companies that you do business with handle their interactions with the people who make their products possible and you decide which you like more.