Saturday, March 26, 2011

Which train gets where you're going?

Turns out the old Mac-versus-PC war is nowadays an iPhone-OS-versus-Android war, taking place both on the smartphone and tablet platforms. You can't really talk about either of them in mixed company without provoking a deep vein of defensiveness and argumentation, no matter how non-partisan you are. Anything you say tends to get taken by one side as a statement of being on the other side.

I recently ran into this when I had to take down a Facebook link about an unimportant bug that showed up on the iPhones with daylight savings time. My purpose in posting it was just to share my amusement, most particularly at one thing: that Apple is normally so very, very good at avoiding those kinds of embarassing gaffes that plague virtually everyone else, so the one time they suffer one, they go all out and make it one that even Windows CE and most VCRs can handle. This is both an embarassment for Apple, and at the same time, a testament to the fact that they do everything else like that so well that they create for themselves a higher standard. It's news when Apple screws up like that, but when Microsoft does, no one even notices.

Is that a partisan statement about which is "better", iPhone or Android? Funnily enough people on either side tend to conclude that, by posting the link, I'm declaring my undying support for the other side, and feel compelled to trot out defenses and arguments.

My smartphone runs neither Android nor iOS, and I have no particular objection to either one -- my limitations are primarily concerned with hardware (and iOS suffers there only because it only comes in one hardware format, which lacks one key feature I need). Some future phone of mine will probably run one or the other -- I'm not looking forward to buying all new software when I make that change, of course, but provided I can do the few things I feel I need, I won't particularly care which one I get.

I happen to have an Android tablet at the moment, but I have no particular loyalty to Android on it. An iPad would have been equally good for my limited purposes, so the Android won on price. Does that mean the iPad isn't "better" enough to warrant the price difference? Every Apple partisan who reads this is currently forming a list in their head of the reasons why it is, or at least reciting a familiar list, but notice that I said "for my limited purposes". The iPad having 10,000 apps doesn't help if I only will use three, all of which are just as good on the Android.

Which is really why the entire Mac-versus-PC and iOS-versus-Android argument has always been moot to me, and should have been moot to 90% of the people who get so intense about it. Most of the people who are choosing a computer are choosing on based not on its OS, but on whether it can do the specific things they need to do. The only sensible decision is to buy the one that does what they need to do, for the best balance between price, reliability, lifespan, etc. And for many many people, there's not much overlap between what one computer or OS or platform can do, and what the other can't. For the vast majority of computer users (admittedly a smaller majority now than in the past, but even so), they don't really have a choice: they need the computer that interacts well with whatever and whoever else they need to interact with, period. To put a fine point on it, for most people, 95% of the things they need to do can be done on either computer (and nearly equally well), but that other 5% means they really have to choose one or the other.

Most of the arguments I see between the partisans of one side or the other come down to arguing about whether the train heading to Chicago is a better train than the one heading to Philadelphia. Sure, there are a few people who just want a nice train ride. But for most people, the destination is the point. It doesn't matter if the train to Philadelphia serves the finest beverages and has sumptuous furnishings; if you're heading to Chicago, you take the train bound for Chicago.

People have long been predicting and advocating various changes in the computing infrastructure which would erode the distinction between OSes, and this is finally happening -- smartphones really started to push the "thin client" world that everyone had talked about and no one had ever really made significant inroads towards, and tablets are building on that. This change is still getting its feet under it, and has a long way to go. But while this change is going to be the first time we really can start to debate which kind of computer to get, because any computer will get us to our destination -- when the analogy is more like cars than trains -- it's also the change that makes the question increasingly irrelevant, because what computer you use won't matter that much if you're just using it to access web-based cloud services.

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