The open Web and Android are the winners; what does it mean?

"OK open systems beat great closed systems every time." I've cited that quote (from Scott Kurnit, circa 1994-95) often, and we're now looking at yet another example: Android and the Web are winning the mobile space. Your stats may be telling you something different. They're probably wrong.

We've launched robust mobile news sites for most of our newspapers, properly integrated with our non-mobile sites, fully supporting social link-sharing and commenting. We also have some apps from a couple of different vendors. In terms of usage, the mobile sites are slaying the apps.

But until a couple of days ago, I thought Android was still trailing the iPhone. A closer look at the actual devices being used in our December stats revealed that we were being fooled in two ways:

  • iPad traffic was showing up as mobile, and lumped in with the iPhone and iPod Touch. The iPad arguably is an unpocketable portable device and has more in common with a laptop than a phone. About 40 percent of what I had assumed to be iPhone traffic turned out to be not mobile traffic at all.
  • Quite a bit of Android traffic was showing up as "Linux" and not "Android" in our Omniture reports. Android actually is Linux, but Linux as a category includes non-Android devices like the Amazon Kindle, the Nokia N900, a couple of older Motorola phones that have proprietary Java interfaces, and WebOS (Palm/HP).

I moved the "lost" Android numbers to the proper category. I subtracted the non-mobile iOS numbers. The picture shifted radically. In our most Android-heavy market, Android phones were actually 20 percentage points ahead of the iPhone in terms of Web traffic to our news site.

Nationally, Comscore has confirmed that Android has passed iOS in the three-month period ending in November.

The reason we should care about these things is not for the purpose of cheerleading any particular technology, but for understanding where we should focus our energies in developing mobile services. Open systems win. That's where you want to be.

If information is your product, open Web technologies are likely to be better tools for mobile services than bespoke applications anyway.

You might think an app can have slight user-interface advantages. One of my favorites is ITA Software's "OnTheFly" app, which is free for both Android and iPhone and does the best airline search I've seen anywhere. ITA's Web interface pales by comparison.

But on close examination, I think this is an implementation difference not really determined by any limits in the Web technology. As more developers get familiar with all of the capabilities of HTML5, and as more development frameworks and toolkits are evolved, you're going to see a shift away from bespoke apps.

Heavy bets on HTML5-based applications are being placed by the teams developing HP's WebOS, Blackberry, and of course Google's ChromeOS, all of which will support installable, offline-capable applications developed with Web technologies.

We all tend to forget that Steve Jobs sang the open-technology song early in the life of the iPhone. It was over a year before Apple even offered a development toolkit for creating apps. The app store didn't exist. It's common for newcomers to sing praises of open standards, then shift to closed approaches when they gain a powerful position. The investment markets often reward this, and you can see it valuations of closed-system companies like Apple and Facebook.

But those of us on the outside don't benefit from that. If you're running a media company and you're tempted to cheer for a side in this battle, the smart move is to cheer for openness.