Did Google Just Turn Apple Into The New AOL?

After reading this article, Why Google Choosing Arduino Matters and is This the End of “Made for iPod” (TM)?, I had an unsettling feeling of history repeating itself in several ways.

Although the Make magazine writer has several objections to the way Google specified the hardware, the overall tone is one of excitement for the future.

I couldn’t stop my mind from seeing parallels to early desktop computing history that accounted for the crazy success of the Apple II computer.

Look at these three advertisements from the heyday of the Apple II+ computer (images from Apple ][ History post):

Click = big

Click = big

Click = big

These three items have several things in common:

1) They extended a popular platform
2) They added value to that platform
3) They didn’t need permission to exist

Extending a platform: Everyone knows you can never have enough RAM. This was true even back then. If people had to settle for the amount of RAM that was included with the original Apple computer, it would have stifled both software development and sales.

Add value to a platform: A person no longer had to settle for the limitations of the computer manufacturer. As Steve Jobs well knows, one company can’t do everything. Nor should it. A company should address the broadest needs and let others pursue the fringes of extreme and niche use.

Not needing permission to exist: Wozniak planned for the extensibility of the Apple computer. He wanted people to freely build on it. The machine he created embodied the ethos of the time — which had made it possible for Apple to even exist! A licensing program that required “Made For Apple” would have been unthinkable, laughed at, and the person suggesting it just about excommunicated.

Someone could look at the Apple computer and say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if it could do X? Why don’t we try to get it to do that and see if other people will buy it?”

That’s how it was back then.

Since the introduction of the iPod, we have seen this spirit crushed by the company that once embodied it: Apple itself.

I’m not going to slam Jobs with the slander of being a “control freak.” He has a certain vision and point of view and so far it has succeeded wildly for Apple, with the triumph of the iPod, iPhone, and now the iPad.

So while I shouldn’t argue with success, I can’t help pointing out that the current stranglehold Apple maintains on its creations will ultimately leave it vulnerable to the same spirit that created the company to begin with: The desire of people to tinker and to dream dreams the original creator never had.

Google seems — and I use the word “seems” deliberately — to be trying to revive the spirit Apple once championed.

The ability of engineers to get a cheap piece of near off-the-shelf hardware that they can interface with a mobile device is compelling in ways that I can’t even begin to imagine. One only has to look at the imaginative things that have been done with Microsoft’s Kinect (the Make article has such a video showcasing them) to understand that having other people tinker is a good thing.

Why do I bring AOL into this? Because AOL did for the online world what Apple is now doing to computing hardware: controlling the total experience.

Prior to AOL, the online world was a pretty hairy place that required a bit of study to use enjoyably. CompuServe was king of the hill but it wasn’t pretty. It was an all-text interface without graphics and required the memorization of commands to really use. AOL came along and made everything graphical and point-and-click.

Right there was the old DOS vs. GUI battle that was played out with the IBM PC vs. Macintosh. And Microsoft eventually capitulated to the forces of GUI, with Windows.

Even with its GUI advantage, I knew AOL would ultimately lose. I didn’t know how because I never imagined the Internet would suddenly be opened up to the general public. I only knew that Bulletin-Board Systems (BBSes) were the proper model for ultimate and lasting success — small systems run by people with passion and specialized expertise who didn’t need permission to do what they wanted.

The Internet is basically all of those BBSes wired together into a super worldwide network. And the Internet crushed AOL.

And now Apple seems to be AOL. A pretty new GUI touch interface over all the remaining mousing ugliness of the computing experience that’s centrally-controlled and requires people to get permission to do what they want.

That is entirely antithetical to the way we have seen success operate.

AOL killed CompuServe. The Internet killed AOL.

But what about the original Apple computer? Doesn’t that make the point that Steve Jobs was right? It bested all of its competitors at the time.

No. Because the Apple computer was not the creation of Jobs. It was the creation of Wozniak, guided by Jobs.

The first Steve Jobs creation was the original Macintosh. Which did away with everything the original Apple had, such as slots, such as being able to pop open the case — even if only to look inside.

And that’s where we’re back to today with the iPad, iPhone, and iPad: sealed units, closed to inspection, not created for others to extend and add value to unless they get permission (with a “Made for…” license or App Store approval).

So, with its latest move, I think a case can be made that Google is showing Apple to be the new AOL.

But does that mean Google and Android will ultimately triumph?

I don’t think so. Because it turns out Google is just as greed-infected as the old Microsoft.

Yet what Google has done here is whetted the appetite of many.

And that could be its ultimate downfall too. A concerted effort by hackers and tinkerers and makers who have an inevitable run-in with the hidden Google fist could lead to a widespread mutiny and a determination for them to control their own destiny.

If you laugh at that prospect, I have just one word for you to remind you of another past successful mutiny: Linux.

Centralized imagination-limiting control never wins.

Nature hates monopolies.

So does the human spirit.


Wikipedia: Arduino
Wikipedia: Bulletin-Board System
Wikipedia: CompuServe
This Is My Next: How Google controls Android: digging deep into the Skyhook filings


Filed under Android, Apple: The Company, Friction, Google, iOS

37 responses to “Did Google Just Turn Apple Into The New AOL?

  1. NotTellinYou

    I hear what you’re trying to say and while I can see the connections you’re making I don’t agree with your conclusions. AOL was a better way for my mom to access the interet it was also limiting. If the ipod could only play a small subset of music then I would agree with your anaology but that’s not the case. I literally had to tear AOL away from my mom and to this day she STILL uses her AOL email. Had AOL provided the entire web, from day one, in a way that was easy to use it would still be here. Instead it created and managed its own content and tools until it was too late.

    you wrote: “I can’t help pointing out that the current stranglehold Apple maintains on its creations will ultimately leave it vulnerable to the same spirit that created the company to begin with: The desire of people to tinker and to dream dreams the original creator never had.”

    I completly disagree. People like you and I want to “tinker” the average consumer does not! My mom does not and never will. The average consumer wants devices like the old rotary phone, the TV, the toaster, they just work!

    This difference in view, and articles like yours, making the exact same claims, have been around since the the first 5GB iPod. They were wrong thinking they could speak for the mass consumer and so are you. Apple has shown that there are hundreds of millions of people that will buy MP3 players, smartphones, tablets, IF they are made with usability as job #1.

    All of these devices existed before Apple created their version and none gained any real consumer traction. My mom has an iPhone and there is no way should would have ever thought of getting a BB, WinMobile, or Palm based Treo etc. No way.

    It’s what Apple does well…and hopefully will continue to do for many years to come. Of course trough those years I’m sure there will also be more articles like this claiming the end is around the corner.

    Let’s hope not, because un like AOL, Apple moves the industry forward. It changes EVERY market it enters for the better. I fear if there was no Apple it would be a pretty boring place.

    • mikecane

      >>>The average consumer wants devices like the old rotary phone, the TV, the toaster, they just work!

      Yes, and I’ve said that myself too. But the two ideas — Just Work and Do More — are not mutually exclusive when done right.

    • Peter

      The average consumer wants devices like the old rotary phone, the TV, the toaster, they just work!

      This is true. But there’s also a bit more to it.

      You’re right when you say the average person isn’t a tinkerer. The problem is that these tinkerers can create things that become the “must-have” product. You get a few of these “must-have” products on Android and not on the iPhone and people start saying, “Hey, why am I carrying around this iPhone when I could have an Android phone and watch TV Broadcasts with this fun little dongle?”

      Who might want to watch broadcast TV? I know some people who bring along a little TV when they go to professional football games. You see, everybody is part of a niche. I’m a pretty normal guy with pretty normal needs from a smartphone. But if I could plug in a hyper-accurate GPS and/or integrate with my existing bicycle sensors, that would be a pretty cool thing for my phone to do. I’d consider getting a phone that did that well versus one that didn’t.

      • mikecane

        I should have been more attentive to his Comment. The old rotary phone eventually added an answering machine and then became a gateway to a whole host of services, including chat lines! That was made possible only because of legal action that culminated in the breakup of the old AT&T Bell Telephone system. Another prime example of central-control not benefiting the many.

      • NotTellinYou

        You miss the point! Answering machines were a novelty until it was just part of the phone service. Today answering machines are rare but even more rare is the person without voicemail! My point is, by extension of your argument, in your world, we would all STILL have plug-able answering machines! We would have these devices we could upgrade and extend. No…today it’s part of the phone service you get and for better or worse for that reason 99% of the time you go to voice mail.

      • NotTellinYou

        BTW: Interesting discussion but back to your premise…I still submit that Apple is NOT AOL. If Apple had for example locked the iPod up to use only AAC with DRM, rather than MP3, sort of like AOL with Rainman without HTML, then I would say you might have a point. This isn’t at all the case.

      • NotTellinYou

        The way I see it the tech landscape is littered with just as much GREAT stuff that “fit in” or “extended” other devices and yet never gained a real hold on the market. For example Tivo! Great OS, great technology, but other than people like you and I, people didn’t get it! Now if it just came in the TV, at least now some cable boxes, more people get it. My point it that until the devices utility becomes as core as the device it purports to enhance it will never gain true success.

      • mikecane

        You can say the same thing about Apple TV then. Maybe that’s why Apple calls it a “hobby”?

  2. Shock Me

    My problem with Apple is not that it makes sealed boxes but that they have seldom brought their magic to extensible systems. If they did both regularly they could upgrade their sealed packages with innovations provided by their messier and lower-volume open packages.

    Things like iPads grafted to microscopes, car entertainment systems, television, or security systems etc.

    Everything they make would be ripped right out of their hands even more than it is now. There is a place for managed and curated experiences in the consumer and business spaces, but extending into the open space would at least keep them in the loop.

    Alas years and years of waiting for an xMac have proven fruitless. My suspicion is the same will go for iOS devices if Thunderbolt I/O does not take off as it should.

    • mikecane

      Yes, you understand the point I was trying to make.

      • Shock Me

        I do think the high bandwidth I/O of thunderbolt would be a nice way to deal with the open box folks. Just make external boxes and add them as needed to the base configuration of sealed Apple goodness. They could even run Audrino protocols over Thunderbolt optical cables.

        The devil is always in the drivers anyway.

      • mikecane

        Thunderbolt will be very interesting to see in action!

    • NotTellinYou

      Again, the average consumer does NOT update or upgrade ANYTHING! They buy new…they don’t read blogs, they don’t follow Apple news, they forget to check for software updates. If I let a few months go between visits when go to my parent’s house I end up spending half the day updating any tech they have. My Dad’s iMac, though it has told her time and again there are updates available, will have 10-12 updates waiting to be installed. They don’t care!

      I will tell you that I am a software Product Manager at a VERY VERY VERY large company I won’t name and I always use my “mom test” when looking at operability. If my mom won’t or wouldn’t be able to use a new feature it goes back to development for a do-over. This far we’ve been VERY successful designing for my mom. ;-)

      • mikecane

        Yes, I understand your argument. I am often in a similar “You need upgradez!!” situation.

    • althegeo

      iPads and iPod touches are plugged into other devices. GPUs, fish finders, medical devices, more and more devices every year.

  3. Darwin

    Well that made no sense at all. You are really reaching in your ever consuming hatred for Apple.

  4. chano

    Oh God!
    Lord ‘a mercy!
    Hell’s a comin’ to the orchard, rsn.
    Yet another sage seer predicting that Apple is turning into a banana skin.

    Mama. When will it oyl end?

  5. Tring

    This article is rather baseless. You’re making yet another argument (even though you may not know it!) about closed versus open platforms and technologies. Mac has always been more closed and you haven’t seen that go away. So why assume that because iPod is closed that it will now be its downfall?

    Baseless article.

  6. Tring

    I read your article for a second time and I still can’t believe the experience of shock that you say you are feeling. Wow! I mean, really!

    Again, your article is just another variation of the now hackneyed arguments about “closed” and “open” platforms. Like I said, Macs have been more closed than PCs and still are and you haven’t seen Mac go downhill.

    What makes it so shocking that a more closed ecosystem can survive? I don’t get it. You just need to look at history with clearer glasses to see that much of your experience of shock is due to forgetting actually what happened in Apple’s history.

    • mikecane

      >>>Like I said, Macs have been more closed than PCs and still are and you haven’t seen Mac go downhill.

      You must be very young. Apple lost a ton of market share before Steve Jobs returned to restore it.

      Also, the original Mac welcomed all developers who were willing to take a risk. Today, risk-takers can be shot down with App Store judgments such as “Does not provide lasting value,” “Duplicates functionality,” or, unstated, “We’ve changed the rules, so just go away.”

      • Tring

        Er…no. Not that young but not that old either. Apple lost market share NOT because the Macs were a closed system. It happened for various reasons including:

        1. Mac clones and too many Mac models (remember that time?)

        2. System 7 and associated operating systems were getting less and less stable and less usable

        3. PowerPC architecture was not scaling well

        Macs of today ARE still more closed than PC computers.

        So, being closed versus being open has nothing to do with whether a company will or will not survive. Look at Sony. How open are their products (PC products aside). And what about Game Consoles?

      • mikecane

        Look at the revenge effects Sony has been suffering due to their closedness. Walkman market gone. No leadership in eBooks. And now the PlayStation debacle. To name just three big ones.

      • Shock Me

        Well to be honest when IBM jumped into the pre-built PC market the game was pretty much over. DOS was everywhere and Microsoft spent a decade developing a GUI that they thought would put Apple and the Mac out of our misery.

        It almost worked until Steve came back. Even so, Mac market-share has never exceeded where it is now and current unit sales have far outpaced where it was even in the profitable late 1980’s and early 1990s.

        But I know what you mean.

      • mikecane

        Which is why I said I shouldn’t argue with Apple’s success, but still.

  7. Tring

    I read NotTellinYou’s commentary and I totally agree with him. You entire argument is also another variation of “people like to tinker, set them free” kind of ideology that a lot of computer geeks have. Well, reality is a lot of people do not want to tinker around with their computers in ways that computer geeks do. I’m a case in point. Even though I’m a power user, I don’t like tinkering with the computer. I much rather tinker with not the tool itself (the computer) but rather the products I want it to produce (e.g., PDF creation, etc.)

    I don’t know why computer geeks keep thinking that everybody wants tinker with their toys and that everybody wants to be able to create their own UI so they can use it “just they way they want”. Maybe you should read “Paradox of Choice” because a lot of people, myself included, rather not have 1 million ways to tinker with a UI (e.g., should the scrollbar be 3D, grey, black on red, etc.) and rather just have it already done and ready to go so our lives can move on and be productive in other ways.

    • mikecane

      I understand the counterargument. I’m just making the other argument here. The optimized experience is a balance between the two.

  8. GrumpyOldCyberspaceMan

    The problem with backwards history projections to present time is that the patterns don’t account often for the environment of the historical event vs now. At the time of the past where tinker/adding spelled initial DOOM for the closed system approach the tinker/hacker class represented more than a small influential minority of end users AT THAT TIME. That isn’t now…TODAY this class is but a drop in the bucket compared to those swayed by brand, pretty case color, easy to use, etc. is more important. Being one of them I can say, get over it…most people don’t appreciate things that a computer pro would. Even Intel gets this notice their change in how they talk about chips. Sure Google has some steam in market…but by giving things away (re Android). In general they are a bad bet outside of ad words….they really are flopstatic these days – Buzz, Wave, Nexus 1, GoogleTv, the hit parade of half baked ideas makes Microsoft look like Johnny Bench hitting home runs. Chromebooks look no better…consumers won’t marvel over pokey Web apps that are sensitive to network issues. They need to get their act together, hopefully the recent management change will help.

    If yout want to slag Apple at least avoid just using the stupid MS/PC vs Apple replay of history argument hackers simply just don’t wield the market power anymore. If they did maybe Xoom might have been more than the complete flop it is. Historical parallels are more apt if you consider car companies and the transition away from gear head thinking. Sure custom car, tuning, moding, etc. exists but that market is a fraction of that industry which used to focus on engine output, type of engine, etc.

    BTW for more interesting fun with what-ifs try putting Amazon in your brain and imagine what they could do with their iPad idea and why that helps them and how they could appropriately subsidize. Don’t think that pattern couldn’t creap into a phone if someone saw traction. This is esp. interesting given their penchant for surprising people. They have a walmart of the internet pattern and that has proven in the real world to have some real power to it.

  9. Bumper

    Apparently you have been so busy building straw men that you haven’t had time to read all the wonderful news about just how “open” the Android OS is NOT and the wonderful job that Google and their partners have NOT done in getting the latest version of the OS out to the owners of their products.

    Competition is the best thing that could happen in any market, but careful analysis of what the other guy is bringing to the market …. something about frying pan and fire …

    Take a break, do a little homework, then blow it out…

    • mikecane

      And apparently you are so blinded by your smugness that you completely missed the link in the post that explains the greed of Google you think you’ve come here to educate me about as if I’ve never seen it before!

      • Bumper

        A well deserved “Touché”, however smugness has never been an attribute of mine, but cynicism is. I harken from the days of Knight kits and 25 watt soldering irons. My mantra is “trust no one”. So on a scale of one to ten, I trust Apple twice as much as I do Google to do the right thing, by me and thus my clients, who ultimately are the ones who put the money in my bank account. If I had a dollar for every person I have met in the last year who had an Android phone (and with no knowledge of what phone I use) who hasn’t said I wish I had an iPhone I could take a really nice free vacation.

        IMHO a more appropriate headline might be is Google becoming the next AOL? Again, IMHO, is Apple had any AOL moments it was in the dark days before the return of Jobs, not the current incarnation. Personally I am often annoyed by Job’s closed box mentality, but OTOH I did make a lot of money in the ’80s adding ram to toaster macs.

        Educate you, never crossed my mind, You are here for the our clicks, I’m here for truth, justice and the American way. (Preceding sentence is snarky humor, have a great weekend.)

      • mikecane

        I foresaw Google’s clampdown on Android, so if you think I trust them, no:

        I would like to trust Apple, but given the way they have treated books and some developers, I can’t.

  10. James

    For all those who think the iPad can’t be interfaced to hardware:


    This may convince you otherwise.

  11. JR

    Open vs. Closed = 20 yrs ago vs. Now In the past you could open a computer and plug and play all you wanted. It usually resulted in a compromised experience or created new UI problems, but then again that was 1/2 the fun. Who wants to open up modern hardware that is so tightly integrated that you need an electron microscope to do any mods. Even if you get a hold of any mod hardware. The UI is so sophisticated and tied to the hardware, who would be able to pull it off, and why? AOL lost because they only provided dial up. If they could have moved into providing DSL speeds ….. you get that picture. Applications and GUI rule. The hardware and storage issues have grown beyond the consumers comprehension. GHZ war has been over for a while. It was the CLOSED SYSTEM that brought apple back. If you look at how Jobs has worked through out the years, his vision has never changed…. it just took 30+years for technology to catch up. Where are the Linux Tablets? Google does have an “open platform” but again, you screw with it and then the software starts getting wiggy. That is the kind of experience that Developers love. A non consistance and buggy experience with a product they are trying to sell. Go to frys and build an tablet computer (LOL), but without a usable GUI and Devlopers….. you get a really nice startup screen…..then what?

    • mikecane

      >>>Where are the Linux Tablets?

      Not to be a prick, but Linux underlies a lot out there. It’s just very hidden. But I understand what you mean by that.

  12. althegeo

    Apple makes closed systems. Closed systems like the Mac Pro. The Mac Pro that can be upgraded by the user. You can add RAM, Hard drives, Optical drives, GPUs, multiple screens and your choice of Windows 7, Mac OS X, Unix and several Linux Distributions.

    Closed systems are a bitch. Wish Apple made open systems. Do I really need sarcasm tags?

  13. John

    At MWSF this year Microchip Technology had a booth where they showed off prototyping boards that interfaced with iPhones and iPads. These use the PIC micro controller, arguably the most commonly used hobbyist CPU. You can download Xcode for free to write OS X software.

    No question, to release a product you’d have to jump through a few more hoops with iOS than with Android, but it is not as bleak as you make it out. You can tinker away for free ( maybe you need $99 for access to some iOS tools).

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