Friday, April 29, 2011

Google and Apple

Seems to be a common thread right now that if Apple is caught with their pants down, the response is "But... but... Google..."

I want to highlight the major differences between the two major corporations, and ask whether it's really fair to put them in the same category.

Apple is attracting criticism because if you buy their products and services, you inevitably run into restrictions on how you can use them. With the Mac, it's relatively liberal, save for the fact that the operating system can't be transfered to entirely compatible (and better) hardware made by someone other than Apple. But with the iPhone and other iOS devices, it's actually gotten fairly nasty. You can't install applications unless Apple decides they're OK (and Apple has, in the past, rejected applications on political grounds, until outcries have forced them to change course.) You can't develop for it without paying a $100 tax. Every effort has been made to prevent you from modifying or customizing your device, and making it your own. And Apple has been throwing its weight around in the patent front too: despite not inventing the "smartphone", it seems to believe that it owns the concept.

I don't want to understate what Apple did when designing the iPhone, they came up with some good ideas that hadn't been tried before, and deserve credit for that. But, well, Palm was making touchscreen phones for years (hell, I considered getting one when I was on Sprint, and that was in 1999!) I remember Ericsson experimenting with touchscreen (not stylus screen) phones in the late nineties too. Nokia produced a number of non-touchscreen Internet-based smartphones such as the 9000 series - I was a proud owner in 1997. The company that probably did the most to popularize the Internet-enabled phone was RIM, who also suffered the most grief, in the shape of outrageous patent lawsuits, for doing so. Danger Inc, creators of the T-Mobile Sidekick, also deserves an enormous amount of credit.

So I get a little testy when I hear that Apple somehow invented the concept and has the right to throw its weight around. It came up with an interesting interface, and many devices since have taken some of those ideas on board. The iPhone, however, is nonetheless built upon the shoulders of giants.

Now, what's the big bad thing Google has done? Well, Google's critics use a specific phrase when condemning the company. They claim Google is collecting data about each of us in order to "sell it to advertisers".

Bullshit.

It's sophistry. I've advertised using Google, and I can tell you right now at no point did Google ever offer me the chance to find out anything about anyone who clicked or saw my ads beyond the most basic metrics you'd expect. Which is as it should be.

Google offers some interesting products, like Google Analytics, that provide some metrics about how users use your sites, but even those (a) aren't tied to advertising, and (b) don't tell you anything beyond paths people are using to get to your sites and what they're doing when they get there. I can't tell from GA that President Obama accessed my blog after clicking on a link at Hotbabes.com.

Is Google collecting data? Of course. Is it providing it to advertisers? No. What it's using it for, at worst, is to improve the quality of their advertising product, to say to advertisers "We're going to use the statistics we have at our disposal to ensure your ad will be displayed to the most appropriate audience."

And how is it doing this? Well, by providing a range of compelling products, for free. And sometimes for not-free - Google's model is not pure advertising, they're also monetizing Google Apps (the business version), the Android Market, Google Books, Google App Engine, the international calling part of Google Voice, and they've had Google Checkout for as long as I remember.

I don't think the two companies are remotely close. The main ethical (probably not even moral) issue Google has is that it has the data it's collected, and there's always the risk that data will leak. The data has been provided voluntarily, in exchange for very good services, and arguably benefits Google's users, in that there's nothing wrong with being presented with ads for stuff you actually want.

The main ethical and moral issue Apple has is that they're constricting, They want to control their users, and people who buy their products end up suffering from unnecessary bonds of usage and censorship because... well, I don't honestly know why Apple does it, I don't think they should.

That's quite a difference.

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