OMG! Google just became Microsoft…

So a couple of posts ago, I was prattling on about open and closed in the context of mobile and a less than thrilling conference I attended (see here and here).

As I stewed on it some more, I realize I’ve seen this game played before in multiple industries.  The two that spring to mind are enterprise/high end B2B software and gaming, and the outcomes were not the same.  Since the latter seems much sexier, I’ll start with that.

When I first joined Rainbow Studios (mid 90’s) they were developing titles for the PC.  The consoles of the day simply didn’t have the horsepower our dev team needed.  But anytime you write code that really stretches a desktop PC, you find out very quickly that one system is not the same as another.  Different graphics cards, RAM, CPU, drivers or whatever will all conspire to make your life pretty miserable.  So even though we were nominally supporting a single platform, there was a lot of time spent on testing and patching for different system configurations that we might encounter.

But just about anybody could publish a title for a PC.  While not an open source platform, development was pretty open, well documented and fairly well understood.  There were no gate-keepers between us and the market place, and although Microsoft controlled the OS, they never interfered with, approved or shot down the titles that were created.  Microsoft’s suite of dev tools were pretty good too. They were clearly the result of many different opinions and a long history of product development for a broad target audience.

When we got word on the specs for the PS2, we were very interested.  Rainbow ended up with a contract for a launch title.  Thanks to the incredibly closed nature of the PS2, we could guarantee that if our code ran well on one PS2, it would run on another.  And every PS2 had more than enough horsepower to do some cool stuff.

But there was a trade-off.  Every title had to be approved and manufactured by Sony.  If they didn’t like your game, you could not bring it to market.  What’s more, the development environment was pretty lousy and had a lot of gaps in it.  I distinctly remember talk of writing our own compiler because we were unhappy with the one that was provided.  It was the antithesis of Microsoft.

But we had more success and made far more money from the console titles than any PC game we ever created.  And while I don’t have the numbers to hand, closed consoles clearly dominate games industry revenue.

When you consider the iPhone and Apple’s control of the eco-system, it reeks of Sony-style control.  And it really is just a focused evolution of the closed model that has been used in mobile for the past 10+ years.

In stark contrast, Google’s efforts with Android follow the Microsoft model rather precisely.

There’s a very appropriate quote, and lest you think I’m some kind of literary type, I can assure you I either heard it on the radio or read it on my breakfast cereal.  But T.S. Elliot once said:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

I think there’s a good argument to be made that Google are playing the role of mature poet, stealing the core of Microsoft’s game plan (definitely alien to Google) and reinventing it for their own needs.  Apple are effectively doing the same with with Sony’s plan too.

Goosoft and Appley, anyone?