I’ll have a full story going up on Newsweek.com soon, but meanwhile something occurred to me today while I was watching the Webcast of the G1 phone from HTC and T-Mobile. It seems to me we’re seeing a replay of the PC wars from the 1980s, back when that market was small but growing very fast and there were loads of different vendors and different standards and everyone was constantly leapfrogging each other with new features and nobody really knew where things were going to end up. Now PCs have become boring but smartphones are the place where you tune in to see what each new device is going to be able to do and there seems to be a constant improvement in capabilities.
Difference now is that in the smartphone market we’re seeing strong open-source presence at a very early stage of the market’s development. What might have happened if Linux had been created and stabilized for the desktop in, say, 1990? Would it have kept Windows from taking over the world? We carp a lot about how Ubuntu and other desktop Linux versions haven’t made a dent in the Borg. But the problem may be simply that open-source really didn’t hit the PC market until long after the market had become mature and stable, and after one vendor had become entrenched as the leader. So on the desktop the Linux guys are trying to roll back a stone that’s already well stuck in place.
But with smartphones we’re seeing open-source options like Android and Symbian very early on, and though Windows Mobile has a big head start, it’s far from dominant in this space and I can see why developers would be attracted to the Android platform.
The other question is can Android pull developers away from Apple. It seems to me that there is real power in that open-source approach, and that while G1 doesn’t come close to the iPhone, nevertheless Apple may be consigning itself to niche status by sticking to its closed-garden approach.
I hate to say it but Apple may end up reliving its nightmare experience in the personal computer market — that is, arriving ahead of everyone else (in 1984) with a device that was really cool and really well built and really showed what the platform could do, but then keeping everything closed and thereby ending up a niche player. Will iPhone end up being the Macintosh redux? I wonder.
UPDATE: Earlier I included a photo with this item. Engadget wrote me to complain that it was their photo. I’d found it here, and you should definitely check out the original. Cause the photo is just that fucking good. Anyway, now I’ve taken it down. Okay? Peace.