Faster Forward: Steve Jobs, tech pundit (annotated version)

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By Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 4:34 PM

The words "interesting" and "earnings call" rarely appear next to each other. When corporate executives take to conference calls to spin their employers' quarterly earnings reports, listeners are usually rewarded with a heaping plateful of word salad.

That was not the case with Apple's earnings yesterday. As Cecilia Kang noted last night, Chief Executive Steve Jobs made a rare appearance, speaking at length about what he thinks of Google's Android software and other competitors. Today I finally had the time to listen to the hour-long call myself.

Jobs's nearly 11-minute soliloquy starts 15 minutes in; he surfaces repeatedly later on while answering questions. Here are some choice bits, taken from Macworld's transcript, with my comments after each:

[BlackBerry vendor Research In Motion] must move beyond their area of strength and comfort, into the unfamiliar territory of trying to become a software platform company. I think it's going to be a challenge for them.

If this makes RIM feel any better, at least Jobs talked about the company! Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 and Palm's webOS (developed by some Apple veterans) didn't even get a mention.

Google loves to characterize Android as "open," and iOS and iPhone as "closed" [....] Android is very fragmented. Many Android OEMs, including the two largest, HTC and Motorola, install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience. The user's left to figure it all out.

By "figure it all out," I can only assume that Jobs meant "learn the quirks of a different keyboard" -- something Mac users have to deal with when they switch from a desktop iMac to a laptop MacBook. There aren't any other confusion-inducing differences in the Android user interfaces I've seen, although I have noted grotesque alterations to the software bundle on Android phones and an occasional dumb placement of buttons.

Twitter client TwitterDeck recently launched their app for Android. They reported that they had to contend with more than a hundred different versions of Android software on 244 different handsets. The multiple hardware and software iterations present developers with a daunting challenge.

That's TweetDeck, not TwitterDeck -- as chief executive Iain Dodsworth quickly commented on Twitter. He followed up by noting that his two Android developers had no problem writing that app: "Did we at any point say it was a nightmare developing on Android? Errr nope, no we didn't. It wasn't." (The post on the company's blog that Jobs seems to reference concluded "it's pretty cool to have our app work on such a wide variety of devices and Android OS variations.")

In addition to Google's own app marketplace, Amazon, Verizon and Vodafone have all announced that they are creating their own app stores for Android. So there will be at least four app stores on Android, which customers must search among to find the app they want, and developers will need to work with to distribute their apps and get paid.

Well, since Verizon doesn't sell in Europe and Vodafone doesn't operate here, it's really only three app stores. The real concern, though, is not having multiple choices -- Mac OS X does not seem to have been held back by the lack of a single app store -- but having some apps only available on one app store or one carrier. You'd never want to limit your customers to the same wireless carrier just to use some cool new release ... wait, I think I've drifted off-topic here.

You know, even if Google were right, and the real issue is "closed" versus "open," it is worthwhile to remember that open systems don't always win. Take Microsoft's "Plays For Sure" music strategy, which used the PC model -- which Android uses as well -- of separating the software components from the hardware components. Even Microsoft finally abandoned this "open" strategy in favor of copying Apple's integrated approach with their Zune player, unfortunately leaving their OEMs empty-handed in the process.

"Plays For Sure" was not about software and hardware separation; it was Microsoft's attempt to get its proprietary digital-rights-management controls for downloaded music built into as many different players as possible. It was, in a word, "closed" -- and it lost to open, DRM-free downloads from the iTunes Store, Amazon and other online sources

Apple has done extensive user testing on user interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff. There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touchscreen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them. This is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.

I'm not actually sure how to read Jobs's extended denunciation of seven-inch tablet displays, which he sees as a fatal flaw of upcoming, Android-based tablets. But one thing seems clear: If Apple ever does introduce an iPad with a 7-inch display--which I now have to think won't be this year -- Apple will explain at length how only it could get a display that small to work, because it really understands this stuff.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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