On Switching and Lock-In

This piece by Joshua Brustein for Businessweek — “Hey, Android Users, Don’t Buy the New iPhones” — is profoundly shallow:

For a Galaxy Note user, then, going over to the iPhone 6 Plus means building up again from zero. And for what? Apple’s operating system may be more intuitive to someone who has never touched a smartphone before, but it’s not going to be any easier for people who have spent over an hour staring at their Android phone every day for the last two to four years. Any benefits are probably outweighed by the drawbacks to abandoning the investment someone has already made.

I wouldn’t say it’s easy to switch from Android to iOS or vice versa, but looking at the history of personal computing, I think it’s easier to switch platforms today than ever before — in either direction. The move to cloud-based storage and syncing makes a lot of things less sticky. Gmail is Gmail. Dropbox is Dropbox. You can even access your iCloud email from Android, because it’s just IMAP. Add to that the fact that the overwhelming majority of mobile apps are free or extremely cheap.

Apple has posted a guide on switching from Android to iPhone, and it’s really pretty straightforward. Google could just as easily post a guide on switching from iPhone to Nexus. Brustein’s advice, to me, seems like an endorsement of laziness, ignorance, and tribalism.

Phone manufacturers make it hard to switch on purpose: They want you locked in forever. That’s the idea behind the Apple Watch and Apple Pay, which don’t work for Android. (Ditto for Samsung’s Gear S watch and Gear VR headset, which are made to work with the company’s other devices.)

This is just completely and utterly wrong. It’s shallow thinking. Lock-in is certainly something Apple (and Google, and Samsung, and everyone else) thinks about. But lock-in has nothing to do with why Apple Watch will only work with iPhone, or why Android Wear devices only work with Android phones.

Apple Watch can only work with iPhone because it does things that require the two be developed together. The hardware and software on both the Watch and iPhone all work together. Apple could make a watch that supports both iPhone and Android, but that watch wouldn’t work anything like Apple Watch, because it would be severely limited by the common features shared by iPhone and Android. And the same is true of Android Wear — it doesn’t work with iPhone because there’s no way Google can provide software that runs on an iPhone to do what Android Wear devices need their paired phone to do.

Pebble watches are cross-platform, but look at how severely limited they are in functionality compared to Android Wear and Apple Watch. And that’s not a slag against Pebble. They’re shipping. They’ve been shipping. And they have some devoted and happy users. And by doing so much less, they’re able to measure battery life in days instead of hours. But functionality-wise, something like Pebble is what you get if you set out to create something that works across iOS and Android, limited by the sandboxing rules for third-party apps. Apple Watch and Android Wear require software on the phone at the operating system level. Mobile apps can only provide shallow integration. To get deep integration requires software (and hardware) designed in coordination. Brustein’s argument is not too far removed from saying that we should be able to buy a Toyota Prius with a Tesla engine — like you can just mix and match these things like Lego bricks.

It’s a pipe dream to think that Apple Watch and Android Wear could be cross-platform without a drastic reduction in functionality, or to argue that they’re platform-dependent simply out of competitive spite in the name of platform lock-in.

Postscript: Keep in mind too that Google’s and Apple’s rivalry is asymmetric. Google is a very active, very popular developer of native iOS apps. They don’t treat iOS as a second-class platform — if anything, they’re more interested in iOS users because they’re a more lucrative demographic for advertisers. Apple’s only Android app is the one they bought with Beats Music. I think Google would support Android Wear from iPhone if they could, and who knows, maybe I’m underestimating just how much a background app can do in iOS 8. But even if Google unveils iPhone support for Android Wear, that too would only prove that Android Wear has nothing to do with trying to lock users in to Android.