Yesterday at Macworld two events helped clarify something I've been discussing with Dieter for a while now -- Apple, the iPhone and iPad, and closed vs. open systems, control vs. chaos. These two events were a presentation by John Gruber of Daring Fireball concerning the 10 biggest problems faced by Apple, and a brief conversation with Leo Laporte of TWiT about Google Buzz.
As part of his Round Robin BlackBerry review, Dieter departed on a rant about BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) of epic proportions. A closed communications protocol, he argued, was untenable. BlackBerry users create incredible amounts of content in BBM (yes, chat is content) but it's all completely closed off and owned by RIM. If you leave BlackBerry, you can't take your BBM content with you. If RIM ever disappears, all your BBM content is lost. Something like Gmail on the other hand, works across platform and if you switch from BlackBerry to iPhone to Android, you enter your Gmail account and everything is there. Since you can access it via standard protocols like POP and IMAP, you can also make local copies and upload them to a different service (i.e. upload your mail to a non-Google IMAP folder).
Laporte made a similar comment about Twitter and Facebook. If either Twitter or Facebook were to fail, all your status updates, all your wall posts, all your friends and those you follow and/or follow you would be gone.
I don't know if Google Buzz will prove to be an open protocol and system for sharing status, location, and relationships, and certainly it's implementation shows signs of the typical Google "release now, fix later, polish never" model, but something needs to.
And this brings me rather circuitously back to Apple and the iPhone. As much as a certain segment decries Apple as "closed", in terms of protocols they're remarkably open. They use IMAP for mail, and open-sourced CalDAV and CardDAV for calendaring and contacts. They use WebDAV for web directories and WebKit for Safari. iChat supports most IM protocols, including Jabber. They use BSD Linux and the Darwin kernel for the core of Mac and iPhone.
Apple is generally built on top of open technologies, and one of their core strengths is melding that open architecture with tightly controlled (i.e. proprietary) user interface layers (and developer APIs, and App Store review processes).
For some, that last part is an absolute deal breaker. But they have Ubantu and Open Moko. (Yes, even Android is closed -- you can't muck about with Gmail or Google Maps apps). For mainstream users, however, the front end, the user experience, "just works" to the point where it's become a cliche.
I said it previously in my Round Robin summation, to use Google you must give up privacy, to use Apple you must give up control. (I don't even want to think about what I'm giving up to use Google on Apple!)
So proprietary interfaces to open technologies -- how does that work for us? What happens when we use something not controlled by Apple?
John Gruber suggested AT&T as an example. Indeed, he listed it a one of Apple's problems. Now, some people get great AT&T service while others have connection problems that have become near-legendary. Either way, it's hurt media and mainstream perceptions about the iPhone.
Gruber also mentioned Big Media (movie and TV studios, music labels) as a problem. They want to charge more than the market will bear (certainly enough to make free-as-in-torrent an alternative) and make less available via iTunes than via a retro 1980s corner video store.
Is it a coincidence that some of the main aspects of the iPhone and iTunes that Apple has absolutely no control over are some that cause the greatest amount of user frustration?
So, we come back to and down to Apple liking to control the user-facing aspects of the iPhone (and iPod touch, and soon, iPad) but using and promoting open standards for a lot of the technology underneath. While this approach might clash philosophically with some users (and again, Android, Palm, etc. aren't open, they're just more open) and practically for others (power users who want the control themselves), its proved remarkably effective for casual, mainstream users, and for power-users willing to give up some control for a better experience.
Except for that part about AT&T and Hollywood, but then those are controlled with little concern for user experience...