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Complexity: the price of freedom

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Open...and Shut Apple can still claim top spot in terms of US market share, according to recent data from Nielsen, but its lead is rapidly vanishing in Android's wake.

This means that developers increasingly are going to need to choose the platform they should develop for first, and the answer seems increasingly to be Google's open web.

If you're into memes, none was more potent in 2010 than the Open vs. Closed debate, as Dorian Benkoil points out. Apple is, of course, the quintessentially closed company that has created a beautiful, holistic mobile experience that seamlessly connects platform, apps, and hardware.

Google presents a very different picture, perhaps no better illustrated than by the ungainly Cr-48 machines Google offered to those wanting to test-drive Chrome OS. The devices lacked Apple's polished charm, but came with something Apple resolutely refuses to offer: open distribution, open development, and open source.

In mobile, this open approach has worked wonders for Google's Android. Android introduces complexity for developers, unlike Apple's iOS: it forces them to think about hardware fragmentation, among other things. It comes with a good app store experience, but not nearly as professionalized as Apple's. There are blemishes throughout the experience.

And yet it continues to win, claiming 40 per cent of new handset shipments in the last six months, according to Nielsen data:

The biggest reason for this consumer adoption is the robust developer adoption Android has engendered. James Gregory, co-founder of application developer Whereoscope, talks about the shift from iOS thinking to Android thinking:

Whilst I still think that Android's initial user experience needs to be improved...I have to say that developing on Android after having worked on iPhone is a bit like waking up from a vivid nightmare - the kind where your dog, Fluffy, is being chased by killer robots who are having a bad hair day - and realising that actually, things are OK.

Why OK? Because Android makes it easy to run code on one's phone (to facilitate development), offers helpful hints through extensive documentation, has a super-easy release process, and more. None of these things matter for end-users, which are Apple's focus, but they matter a great deal for developers.

This isn't to suggest that Apple's iOS devices are going to disappear from store shelves anytime soon. Given Apple's likely deal with Verizon in the US, as well as its increasing willingness to distribute iOS devices through alternative channels like (gasp!) Wal-Mart, Apple is going to have a fantastic 2011.

But in the long run, Apple's business model disadvantage is going to cost it market share. Today, the world covets Apple's shiny devices but with credible, more than "good enough" Android alternatives hitting the market en masse, it's just a matter of time before Google's "open and free" approach to handset manufacturers and carriers wins out.

It's not clear that Apple can do much to stop Google. The two companies compete in vastly different ways, and while Google has found a way to undermine Apple's shiny, simplified device experience, Apple has done little to combat Google's approach.

Wells Fargo Securities senior analyst Jason Maynard dissects the opposing strategies in a recent research note (What To Expect At CES 2011):

[A] lot of industry watchers are trying to call this race [between Microsoft, Apple, and Google for dominance in the mobile operating system market] by making the comparison back to the PC OS battle of the 1990's. Some argue that Apple is just like Apple back in 1995 and Google Android is playing the role of Microsoft Windows. We don't think the analogy is perfect....In our view, the mobile OS platform battle is more complex given the involvement of carriers, Apple's prominence with developers, brand recognition, and OS leverage across multiple form factors rather than just one.

What makes this fight so intriguing...is that from a technology standpoint the battle is all about building the best software platform, but competitively the business model and strategies are very different. Apple monetizes iOS through hardware sales of slick, integrated devices that produce an amazing user experience. Google has pretty good software but has gained massive hardware traction with its open source Android platform. Google doesn't charge for the OS or require hardware vendors to embed their search services, but rather makes its money through ad supported internet services. Microsoft is slowly getting back into the game with Windows Phone 7 and is hoping to make a splash with tablets. Their model and strategy is pretty much the same as it ever was by licensing its OS to multiple hardware vendors.

Putting Microsoft aside, which is relatively easy to do given that Microsoft doesn't have a clear mobile strategy, Apple needs to figure out ways to undermine Google. Apple has started down this road by launching a lawsuit against Android, as well as building its iAd mobile advertising business.

But Google keeps minting money. Android leads to more mobile search market share, which in turn leads to more mobile advertising revenue. That mobile advertising revenue was helped in 2010 through Google's acquisition of AdMob, which puts the squeeze on Apple's iAd business.

Of course, plenty of people will opt to stick with iOS devices. Importantly, however, those same people will almost certainly continue "paying" money to Google through mobile search and other Google products, whereas Apple has no analogous way to cut into Google's customer base, except by selling expensive devices on which Google customers run inexpensive services like search.

First, it was developers who started voting for Google's open-source Android. More and more, it's end-users, too.

Google's open web approach is a winning strategy. So is Apple's soup-to-nuts shiny-but-closed model. But in the long run, Google will win the biggest share of the mobile market, which will be evident at CES: Apple won't even show up, and Android will be everywhere.

In 2011, expect to see this translate into Android becoming the default development target, even as it becomes the Proletariat's most accessible mobile platform.

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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