A couple of weeks ago in The Observer, John Naughton reviewed the state of battle between Apple and Microsoft and revisited Umberto Eco’s 1994 analogy with the Catholic and Protestant religions. Eco saw the Apple Mac as “cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step” while he said the PC “allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation”.
Naughton argued the continuing relevance of the analogy. But I think the more interesting contest at the moment is that between Apple and Google. It’s a contest at which I’ve been enjoying a ringside seat in recent weeks, as I renewed my contract with T-Mobile and upgraded to their Google Android-powered G1 phone while my wife ditched her nine-year-old Sony Ericsson and signed up for the iPhone. The fast-growing market for 3G touchphones is the frontline of the consumer technology battle.
The motivations for our respective choices are instructive to explore. My wife contemplated the iPhone as a self-standing device. She was drawn to its drop-dead good looks and its intuitive ease of use. She liked the idea of a device which could serve as her diary and address book as well as her phone, but she wasn’t excited by the iPhone’s multimedia capabilities nor did she give much attention to the issues about syncing the phone to her computer (a PC).
I started from the presumption that I wanted a device that would fit my multi-platform life. For the past year, I have been working primarily on an Ubuntu-Linux computer, but also use the PC, and recently acquired an Asus netbook for when I’m out and about. The glue which integrates these various machines into a productive system is the cloud – more specifically, a suite of internet products which store my data online so that I can access it from any device.
I considered an iPhone but was drawn to the Google phone because it seemed specifically designed as the kind of internet appliance that would support my modus operandi. Since much of my life was already committed to Google products, setting up the G1 was a dream. Simply inputting my Google credentials the first time I switched on the phone was enough to populate it with all my diary appointments and contacts.
The iPhone, by contrast, demanded precisely the “difficult personal decisions” and “subtle hermeneutics” that Eco had ascribed to the Microsoft experience. There’s no simple, over-the-air approach to managing data between different devices. Apple offer their own cloud-based products such as calendar, contacts and email. But these come at a hefty annual price, are clunky compared with Google’s products, and lock you into Apple’s ‘me.com’ email address. For the PC, the iPhone syncs with Microsoft Outlook but only by plugging in the device to the computer thereby foregoing the grab-and-go appeal of a 3G phone which automatically updates itself with the appointments you’ve added to your calendar before running out to a meeting. Ultimately, we found a way to sync the iPhone over the air with Google Calendar and Contacts using a product called NuevaSync so, barring a few occasional hiccups, it behaves pretty much like a Google phone.
For sheer joy, though, the iPhone wins hands down. It identifies your location with unnerving precision in a matter of seconds which is great if you’re out and about and need to pull up a map to find your way somewhere. It is pleasing to the eye and to handle, sports elegant icons and offers a host of additional applications which you can install and which just work. The G1 steps up with all the style of a 1970s trimphone and it’s too early yet for an attractive ecology of applications to be available. In time, though, I would expect the Google Android platform to pull ahead in relation to applications. For the great strength of Android is that it is an open source operating system, indeed a variant of Linux. This means that anyone can design software for Android phones and get their products to market, whereas Apple inserts itself between the development community and end users.
A final thought concerns how Google seems to have drawn both my wife and me further into its fold as a result of our phone choices. The G1 prompted me to switch my email to GMail and, when I’m at the PC, the Windows-only Google Chrome browser is my default choice for the way it turns my web calendar, contacts and tasks into fast desktop applications. My wife’s adoption of Google Calendar has enabled us to share our respective calendars and encouraged us to dispense with the paper family calendar that we have always maintained hitherto.
I’ve written in the past about the risks to privacy of entrusting so much of one’s life to one company. The dimensions of this risk become ever more apparent, as Mark Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center pointed out when Google demonstrated its ability to predict flu epidemics. His concerns were reported by The Register:
Google’s Trends service has long used aggregated search data to track the habits of the world’s web users. But health-related data is a particularly touchy subject, and Rotenberg sees Flu Trends as a chance to broaden the public debate over data aggregation – and finally put some meaning into these anonymization claims.
The problem, Rotenberg says, is that data aggregation calls attention to specific data stored on Google’s servers, making it that much more vulnerable to, say, a subpoena or a national security letter. “Let’s say that instead of Flu Trends, Google’s doing SARS Trends – tracking a very serious communicable disease,” he explains. “If there’s a big SARS upsurge somewhere, the government would be at Google’s door asking where did that data come from.”
And that’s just one example. “You can imagine any number of different scenarios where people would be interested in finding who the individuals are making those searches.”
Internet companies are beginning to identify marketing advantage in being responsive to privacy concerns. Yahoo! has upped the ante, setting a maximum period of three months for storing much of the data it keeps on users. If Yahoo! survives as an entity, it seems likely that Google and others may eventually follow suit.
In addition to privacy concerns, though, I’m now beginning to worry about excessive dependence on one company. Andrew Nusca, on ZD Net, is thinking along similar lines – warning that we are creating Google monoculture which may cause systemic problems if it were to collapse. I think this risk may be a little over-stated since Google operates in competitive markets for many of its products and I personally would have little difficulty switching if Google disappeared overnight. I chat to my friends through Google Chat, but they’re also in Linked In and Facebook. I’m a heavy user of Google Maps but Open Street Map or even this would serve me just as well.
The moral? The smartphone revolution is driving us to consolidate our data in fewer and fewer places. But it’s important to have a backup strategy. Your data should always be accessible whatever the agents to whom you entrust it might do.