Is iPhone the AOL of Mobile?

You've got phone!

gk on April 26, 2013 in Misc About a 3 minute read.

Last year I began getting into mobile development. That in itself is a subject of many stories alone, but in the course of researching the mobile landscape, I came to a realization: the iPhone and in particular iOS are in many ways the AOL of mobile. These technologies are great on-ramps into mobile technology, but they provide such severe restrictions that it's easy to see the roots of their future demise written right into the sources of their early success.

Apple exposes the powerful functionality of having a robust location-aware computer in your hand in the simplest way possible - holding your hand while at the same time occupying it. Apple famously guards every last inch of the iPhone experience and curates an entirely 'closed' ecosystem. Only partners who meet Apple's guidelines and requirements can play Apple's game.

This is precisely the role that AOL served in introducing millions of folks to the internet in the mid to late nineties. AOL famously provided a chaperoned experience to the basics of the online experience -- internet and email. 

Meanwhile, Google's Android has taken the open approach. Despite a relatively rocky start that really only served fairly savvy users, Android has rapidly matured to provide an overall user experience on par with that of iOS. But, because Google's system is open, innovation happens much more rapidly and is often driven as much by the community and by power users' as it is by Google itself.

As an example, consider he amazing Android app Tasker. Tasker essentially exposes many of your Android phone or tablet's core OS functions in a simple programmable environment. Google's OS exposes these functions directly to users and Tasker allows you to create little scripts without needing to know how to do mobile app development. A few examples from my phone...

I have various profiles that are triggered by the phone's state (e.g. headphones plugged in, in the car, at the office, near home, etc.). These profiles set my volumes, automatically activate bluetooth and gps, turn on wifi, etc. Tasker also provides access to Android's voice-to-speech engine, so when I'm in the car my phone will announce and read incomming text messages and allow me to dictate replies hands-free.

I also have a simple lost phone script. If my phone receives a txt message containing a specific pass phrase, it will lock itself requiring a password to access. Then it will turn on its gps antenna, and send a txt to my Google voice number containing its current gps coordinates.

Probably my most fun Tasker script is my own home-made Siri app. Since Android enables access to voice-to-speech as well as its excellent speech-to-text engine, I've written a few little scripts to take advantage. My favorite one allows me to ask my phone about the surf (e.g. "how's the surf today?"), and it will connect to three different online services and read back to me the latest swell height, direction, and period along with tide and water temperature.

Then of course, Tasker also allows you to quickly package and share you're scripts so that others can also easily use my surf-check app. So, sure Siri is great (sort of), but being able to tweak it to your heart's content (or benefit from slightly more savvy users tweaking) is amazingly cool and powerful. Somehow I don't see Apple ever allowing iPhone users to script their own Siri responses.

Especially in light of the recent iOS maps debacle and considering Android's exponential gains in user-experience (not to mention myriad threats from maybe Blackberry, Microsoft, and who-knows-who-else), it's very easy to imagine iOS being relegated to 'You've got mail' status in the near future. What do you think? Does open innovation ultimately trump closed curation?

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