Google Vs. Apple: An Open And Closed Case

Yesterday, I was eavesdropping on a debate about open-source vs. closed systems. I found the debate fascinating because two of the most important contributors to what our search experience might look like live at opposite ends of this debate. Apple is adamant about locking down every aspect of the user experience. Google wants to open it up to any and all comers. The third player, Microsoft, sits somewhere in between. The debate was about who might prevail. I was uncharacteristically silent during all this, because I had to think about it before throwing in my two cents. Now, 24 hours later, it's time to toss in my ante.

In theory, open source should win hands down. The open environment allows a cooperative ecosystem to evolve, guaranteeing a rate of innovation simply not possible in closed system. But I think it depends on where we are in the maturity of the market. Open source allows for more innovation, but it's also an open invitation for more things to go wrong. This can be deadly as you try to push along market adoption. 



Apple Closes the Loop

There is a reason why Apple is the darling of the early adopter. The company insist on things working. And you can only do this when you can lock down each and every aspect of the user experience. If there's one thing Apple understands at its core (sorry, couldn't resist), it's how to make a user happy. The Jobs BHAG of creating "insanely great" products only works if all that insanity leads to an expected end result. And I challenge anyone who's used both a Mac and a Windows box to tell me that the Apple user experience isn't more refined, more elegant and more delightful.

In the early days of market adoption, this stuff is important. You don't want to drop way more cash than you should on a new tech-toy only to find the interface is clunky, amateurish and full of glitches. With Apple's meticulous attention to detail, you know that whatever is available on your new iToy will work near-flawlessly. Sure, the code-police from Cupertino are overly dictatorial, which isn't winning them any friends in the programming community, but the apps that are the end result are ridiculously simple to use and frequently beautiful to look at. 

Google's UX Challenges

Now, look at Google. I tried to find a polite way to say this, but couldn't, so I'll just lay it on the table: Google sucks at interface design. For years we've been lauding the simple, spartan look of Google search. The fact is, simple was all we needed for an ordered list of text results. Google's algorithm provided enough power in the backend to make up for an anemic interface. But today, now that everyone's caught up in the algo department, Google's interface looks like a Grade 8 coding project.  The new 3 column search format follows in the footsteps of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendars and most other Google interfaces: it looks like it was designed by an engineer. 

In my company, we tried to move to using Google's suite of tools based on the fact that in an open-source environment, we should see more rapid innovation. Well, that and the price was hard to argue with. But the fact is, everyone on our team is completely fed up with clunky Google interfaces that seem full of quirks. It doesn't feel like we're using leading-edge innovation, it feels like we're using freeware. And I, for one, expect more from Google.

Google ... Give me that GUI Feeling!

That's the problem with open source early in the market adoption model. There's not enough maturity in the market to force developers to worry about nuance. User experience is considered the polish -- the last thing to be applied. You can't lock down all the details needed to guarantee a consistently acceptable user experience.

I still have tremendous respect for the innovation engine that sits at the heart of Google, but if I had one piece of advice to pass along, it would be this: Worry less about changing the world, and  more about polishing up the Gmail interface. You can always change the world tomorrow, but today I'd like to retrieve my email from something that doesn't look like a dog's breakfast.

6 comments about "Google Vs. Apple: An Open And Closed Case".
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  1. Fabio Gratton from ignite HEALTH, May 27, 2010 at 11:59 a.m.

    Great post Gord. And this is coming from someone who has never used a Mac, but love my itouch and iPad. As much as I personally resent the closed system apple has created, and the arrogance of Jobs when it comes to discussing their approach to business, they have indeed delivered an extremely superior user experience ... Yes, it "delights" greatly. I too find it funny (and frustrating) that Google can't improve the user experience, especially for tools like gmail. Yes, I love the idea of an open system, but there are times when companies should also pause and focus on creating better experiences for their end-users, not just for the developers and engineers.

  2. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, May 27, 2010 at 12:08 p.m.

    100% agree. Thanks for organizing my own thoughts on the subject. I think it also has relevance for the flash vs apple debate too, in that the flash interface makes claims to be open and Apple tries to claim to be even more open, when the actual issue is not openness but what constitutes an acceptable level of clunkiness. Adobe's tolerance for it is obviously much higher than Apple's, as anyone who has used flash knows. Sure, it used to be Macromedia's interface, but they could be excused some clunkiness, and has anyone ever figured out how to use Adobe Illustrator yet?

    Clunk vs Clever is the real conflict in both cases.

  3. Ira Kalb from Kalb & Associates, May 27, 2010 at 4:46 p.m.

    Gordon, this is the first time I have read one of your articles where I disagree, at least in part. One could argue that innovation is enhanced by Apple's approach because there are limits. Constraints often promote innovation. Lack of constraints tend to cause inefficiency since designers and innovators do not know where to start, and waste a lot of time going down blind alleys. With the Apple approach there is still room for an infinite number of possibilities, but within the constraints that are designed to give users what they want — a product that works in most cases. Yes, Apple is a dictatorship, and that is not ideal, but it is very efficient when the dictator has a design philosophy that everyone understands and is willing to follow. There is chaos and there is order, and the universe is organized with both — order at the user interface end, and chaos at the microscopic level. Google seems open to those of us that use their tools in the marketplace, but if you have ever visited Google, as I have, they are very closed in the way they think and operate their business. Both companies have their advantages and disadvantages and both represent different sides of the same coin.

    Also, I cannot agree that Apple is better for just early adopters. When I myself was deciding between an IBM PC platform or a Mac, I noticed that the Mac audience was made up of two distinct groups - the ones that wanted an easier to use computer and computer experts that appreciated the Mac interface that freed them to do more creative things.

    To one segment, Apple is a religion and they believe whatever the religious leader, Steve Jobs, tells them. There is another segment that hates everything Apple because they do not like the Apple approach to the world. I think the vast majority of the marketplace, admire Apple products because they do the job and work elegantly, as you said - not because they like or dislike the Apple philosophy. Apple, under Steve, has made plenty of mistakes - Apple III, Lisa, the first Mac Portable, but in the past few years, starting with the iPod, they seem to be firing on all cylinders.

  4. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc., May 27, 2010 at 5:29 p.m.

    Apple is a cult, Google is a website - stop endowing these items with mythical properties. Mac is to PC as AOL was to HTTP. If you need training wheels on your computer perhaps you should choose another career path. The simple fact is less than 10% of the "computers" (and I use the term losely) are Macs. If I manufactured televisions that functioned in less than 10% of US households, nobody would be changing anything for my mini-penetration. It's the cult of Job - they are and will remain iWeenies.

  5. Katherine Mckenna from Findit LLC, May 28, 2010 at 8:42 a.m.

    Thanks for putting thoughts to words. Clearly two different strategies....both shaping two brands so differently. Lots to learn from both. I love Apple, but turn to the PC when my Mac runs short. A fan of Google, with caution. Lots of great things come from chaos...bad things too.

  6. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, May 28, 2010 at 1:49 p.m.

    Ira..I think we agree more than disagree on Apple's appeal. I didn't say they appeal only to early adopters, but the dedication to detail certainly makes the adoption path less painful.

    Regarding the "closed" approach of Google's culture, which seems opposed to their philosophy of "open" development, I have noticed the same thing and actually did a column on this a few weeks ago -

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