iPhone, language wars, browser wars, and platform wars

Thursday 11 January 2007 at 11:12

In the programming world, some parts of the Python community have been complaining about this new upstart, Ruby, luring developers away from the fold. Some parts of the Perl community have been thinking, "Ha ha, Pythonistas! See how you like a taste of your own medicine!" There's C++ vs. Java vs. C#. There's LISP vs. Haskel vs. whatever. But for years I've been saying "never mind the language wars, JavaScript already won." JavaScript quietly conquered the world by hitching a ride with web browsers. Whatever language is your favorite, javascript is the most widely deployed language in the world. Google Maps and Gmail drove that point home. AJAX hype followed. Mozilla gets credit for taking javascript seriously for probably the longest.

When Apple introduced Dashboard and Widgets, I thought they were wisely trying to lower the barrier for web developers to build applications specifically for OS X. As if noticing that they needed to make it easy for JavaScript developers to build stuff for MacOS. Microsoft followed suit with "Gadgets" in Vista. (Google offers widgets too.)

Just in case you weren't paying attention to the Stevenote, javascript just[1] made the leap to cell phones.

On a related note there have been browser wars for a long time now: you know, Internet Explorer vs. Firefox most recently, (which was Netscape before that, always Mozilla underneath). While those two have been fighting it out on the desktop, Safari just made the leap to cell phones. If Apple can deliver on the vision they've painted at Macworld, Safari just became a contender.

Apple also just lowered the barrier to cell phone application development because if you're a web developer, now you're also developing apps for phones just like Google and Yahoo. Not much extra effort required: how does your web app look in Safari?

Another thing to read between the lines: OS X now runs on at least three different processors: PowerPC, Intel, and whatever is inside the iPhone prototypes.

There's an OS wars hook in here too. Not just the cell phone OS wars: Palm vs. Symbian vs. Microsoft Smartphone OS vs. vs. Blackberry vs. embedded Linux. For years Windows fans have claimed that market share is why Windows suffers five orders of magnitude more viruses and malware than Mac OS. If Apple can deliver, the iPhone is going to take the smart phone market by storm. They'll quickly become the leader in that market just as they have with iPods. And that's Mac OS running in there. We might just get to see a real-world test: is the blight on Windows market share as Windows fans contend or is it sucky software as Mac fans contend? That debate has always been vacuous theory only -- how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? We may yet live to see an answer to the question about market share and virus proliferation.

Hat's off to Apple.

[1] Eric's standard Mac-bigotry disclaimer: Apple is never the first to market with some whizzbang technology (with the exception of the original personal computer). I know that Microsoft put IE on a smart phone and Javascript came along for the ride there. Apple is never the first. What they do is popularize technologies. Mice and graphical user interfaces, laser printers (and therefor the entire desktop publishing industry), build-in networking (AppleTalk was included with the original Mac in 1984), fashionable enclosures (e.g. the original iMacs), USB, Bluetooth, Rendezvous Bonjour (aka. Zeroconf), iPods. All of those technologies were not Apple innovations per se. But the broader market follows their lead when Apple bets on a given technology. Apple does reshape the market landscape on a pretty regular basis. They've just staked a claim on the smartphone market.

One more argument just for you, Jeff. Apple's move into the phone space could be an abuse of the power they now hold in the music player market. Just as Microsoft leverages their OS monopoly to wedge themselves in other markets, so is Apple leveraging their monopoly to conquer a new market. I'm keeping my eyes peeled for abuse of power on Apple's part too. But accuse me of suffering from the Steve-Jobs-reality-distortion-field if you like, the iPhone looks like a real improvement on anything I've seen in the way of PDAs, phones, or music players for that matter. Apple still looks like it will be a kinder, gentler monopolist than Microsoft, if indeed it develops the kind of market power the Microsoft has. But I will grant you that there is still time for the corruption of power to creep into Apple's corporate behavior as they command a larger share of these markets.