On control, software, and mobile computing

November 7, 2011 by Steve Wacker in Software Development

I’ve been musing about control lately. I think having a good grasp on the concept of control is actually a balancing act between controlling what you can and letting go of what you can’t. With regard to the world of computers and IT, one somewhat infamous control issue has been cast in something of a new light for me lately.

Control in the early days of PCs

In the early days of PCs – we’re talking the mid-1980s – an oft-discussed control issue in geek circles was how Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple strictly controlled the manufacture of their PCs. At that time — before the mad rush to have everything done “offshore” — I’m pretty sure Apple had its own manufacturing facilities. The explosion of IBM compatible PCs (wow — haven’t written that term in a long time) or MS-DOS-based computers in the 1980s and 1990s, was often cited as something of a vindication for Microsoft’s approach of NOT strictly controlling the manufacture of PCs. They made their operating system work on most anyone’s hardware, which helped the Microsoft “platform” proliferate as widely and rapidly as it did.

Close up of a gearstick

Anyway, Microsoft and Apple continued to innovate in their own unique ways, and millions of people have reaped the benefits of their products. In my lifetime we’ve gone from mainframe computers to minicomputers to microcomputers to smartphones. When I stop and think about what an amazingly powerful computer I now carry around in my pocket I’m rather amazed (to use another phrase from the past, it kinda blows my mind). And now mobile computing is growing so rapidly it’s even outpacing the growth of web-based, or “conventional” Internet use. With regard to mobile computing, we’re way past dipping our toes in to sense the temperature — we’re diving into the deep end.

Today’s shift in control

But what I find rather fascinating goes back to the issue of control. Things have shifted in various ways. For one, Apple doesn’t do its own manufacturing anymore, although they hold their manufacturers to a pretty high standard in terms of the quality of their manufactured devices. They also continue to maintain strict control of their operating systems. Sadly, they recently lost the visionary who led them to develop their amazing products, and some question whether they will be able to experience such a period of innovation again anytime soon.

Google, the juggernaut that found incredible riches in its quest to become the sultan of search, entered the smartphone market a few years back with an operating system that was flexible and could be adapted to most any hardware device. This approach was hailed at the outset, but upgrading such a wide variety of variants with security patches and improvements is becoming more difficult by the minute. Security has become a significant concern for people with Droids.

Microsoft control and innovation

What has Microsoft done? The originator of the license-it-to-anyone approach has embarked upon an interesting path, to say the least. With the release of Windows Phone 7 just over a year ago, they revealed a truly innovative user interface. For my money, they improved upon the iPhone and took smartphone design to a new level. The recent OS upgrade to Windows Phone 7.5 prompted Farhad Manjoo, the technology writer for Slate.com, to say “there’s no better-designed OS on the market” and “if you have your heart set on the new iPhone or an Android, go to a store and try out a Windows Phone first. You’ll find a lot to like.”

And the innovation continues, but not in a control-freak kind of way. The way Microsoft created a people-centric UI instead of an app-based UI is, I think, brilliant. And their innovation mantra seems to now be “integration.” The way Windows Phone 7.5 integrates with Facebook, for example, is practically seamless. And they built a speedy browser that supports the emerging HTML5 standard – but it’s also impervious to malware, one of the significant threats to Internet computing.

Oh, and about that upgrade… Because Microsoft holds manufacturers to an incredibly high standard, and because they built a highly secure mobile OS from scratch that they can update at will through Microsoft Update, the upgrade to Windows Phone 7.5 has been sailing along with minimal fuss. There have been issues, yes, but overall it’s been very smooth. Mine took about 40 minutes the other morning over my wireless home network, and it worked flawlessly.

Control as freedom

So – control. Control the design, but also listen to what people tell you. And control the execution, because sloppy execution hampers deployment. The composer Igor Stravinsky purportedly once said, “The more art is controlled, the more it is free.” I’m certainly not equating computing devices with art, but that Stravinsky quote has been popping up in my mind a lot lately.