Over the last several months, I have seen scads of articles trying to equate the battle between Apple's iOS on one side and Google's Android on the other as a rerun of the famous Microsoft Windows versus Apple Macintosh battles that played out over the 1980s and early 1990s. In practically every case, Android is seen as Windows. After all, both operating systems have achieved market leadership (in most ways you could count leadership) through extensive partner relationships. In both cases, Apple fanatics look down on the alternative as being less polished. In both cases, the opposing non-Apple camp has the chance to revel in geekery, showing what's possible when you get to the system foundation, while looking down upon the more closed, possibly less flexible Apple option. But I would argue there's a different way to look at this conflict, and it comes down to apps - which flips the discussion on its head.
Microsoft Word 6 for Mac. The Pain Still Is Felt Everywhere.
As a longtime Mac OS user (and sufferer), I slogged my way through Apple's dark times in the mid to late 1990s, taunted by developers who would avoid Mac OS as a platform. Others, if they did choose to release for Mac OS, might do so well after comparable versions were issued for Windows. Often, the Mac version was a klutzy port of the Windows original, running slowly and awkwardly on Apple machines. While we had our own native apps that only ran on Mac, press and advertisers alike knew that Windows had the numbers - more users, more options and dramatically more software. Most of us Mac addicts were left to order out of catalogs instead of retail stores, quietly fixing our need like those with misunderstood fetishes, while Windows users gleefully got first-day shipments of PC titles with the latest games, office software, and multimedia. We begged for scraps, but our day eventually came.
In time, our once pitiful position, a mere blip in software sales next to the incumbent behemoth, changed. Under Steve Jobs' leadership the new Apple and Mac began to stand for something else - not just in quality, but in numbers. The popular titles that once were shipping Windows only started to ship for both Mac and Windows simultaneously. Large companies that once abandoned the Mac came back, or set up separate business units thad did a fantastic job creating quality software. The gap once felt in software has practically disappeared, and I can't remember the last time I felt longingly for a piece of software that ran exclusively on Windows, or found a hardware device that had forgotten to find a way to work well with Mac out of the box. I have an HP Laptop running Windows 7 (and IE) at home, but I've only had to use it to get into proprietary online meeting rooms that demand Windows. Otherwise, the notebook stays closed.
Does this mean that the Mac ever caught up in terms of the vast number of software titles? No. But no Mac user today feels the same way that we Mac users did eight or twelve years ago, because everything we can do on a PC, we can do on a Mac, and there are many different things possible on this platform that can't be done on Windows.
Top App Developers Are Coding for Android and iOS
This brings me back to Android. Apple's iOS has more applications than Android. It has a smart, well-organized, high quality store design that presents new and high quality apps to users for iPhone, iPod and iPad. The Android Market is close, but not perfect. iOS has a good number of applications that are iOS-only, which do not exist for Android, namely favorites like Instagram, Path, Flipboard and more - many more.
But, as I've predicted over the last nine or so months, since changing my mobile OS preferences, this is changing, just like the Mac issues of the past. The gap in software is closing in terms of the number of applications. The polish of Android is improving relative to that of iOS, as Google improves with each iterative release. The amount of software available is increasing to fill needs that were previously unserved. Soon Android users, if we have not gotten there already, will feel like the Mac users of today, where every need is served, and there is no lingering desire for anything on the other side of the mobile software divide.
You can see the dominoes begin to fall as iOS-only applications, like Path, publicly promise Android versions soon, while promising to wait and deliver an amazing experience. You see applications like Ninua start as Android only, and games developers deploy for Android while ignoring iOS. (See: Bionic Panda Games) I believe only the most ardent of iOS fanatics will stay single sourced in the long run, just like BBEdit has never strayed from its Mac-only approach (and boy do we love them for it).
For when it comes to the mobile applications piece of this skirmish, Apple is not Apple of the 1990s. It is playing a role more similar to that of Microsoft, who had more titles, more developers, and a seeming guise of invincibility. This is not a replay of that battle, but a new one where the challenger is now the dominant one, and behaving much like a dominant player would. What I like more about this specific discussion is that this time, in my opinion, both sides are great. I would take a market battle between Apple and Google any day over the frustrations and issues that took place with a dominant Windows of yesteryear. I still love my Mac and the iPad has transformed mobile computing. But let's not be so naive about the world of Android software. Developers, users and the entire Android ecosystem are going to be benefitting from continued progress and growth - in quality and quantity.