Google vs Apple: an Open and Closed Case

First published May 27, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

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.

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