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):
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: Bulletin-Board System
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