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Tag: open access

Why I Favor Google over Apple

image Many of my good friends are big fans of Apple and its products. But not me. This good-natured difference in opinion leads us into never-ending mini-debates over Twitter or in real life over the relative merits of Apple’s products and those of its competitors.

I suspect many of them (respectfully) think I’m crazy. “Why would you want an inferior product?” “Why do you back a company that has all this information about you and follows you everywhere on the internet?”

I figured that one of these days, I should actually respond to them (fears of flamers/attacks on my judgment be damned!).

imageFirst thing’s first. I’ll concede that, at least for now, Apple tends to build better products. Apple has remarkable design and UI sense which I have yet to see matched by another company. Their hardware is of exceptionally high quality, and, as I mentioned before, they are masters at integrating their high-end hardware with their custom-built software to create a very solid user experience. They are also often pioneers in new hardware innovations (e.g., accelerometer, multitouch, “retina display”, etc.).

So, given this, why on earth would I call myself a Google Fanboi (and not an Apple one)? There are a couple of reasons for it, but most of them boil down basically to the nature of Google’s business model which is focused around monetizing use rather than selling a particular piece of content/software/hardware. Google’s dominant source of profit is internet advertising – and they are able to better serve ads (get higher revenue per ad) and able to serve more ads (higher number of ads) by getting more people to use the internet and to use it more. Contrast this with Apple who’s business model is (for the most part) around selling a particular piece of software or hardware – to them, increased use is the justification or rationale for creating (and charging more for) better products. The consequence of this is that the companies focus on different things:

  • image Cheap(er) cost of access – Although Apple technology and design is quite complicated, Apple’s product philosophy is very simple: build the best product “solution” and sell it at a premium. This makes sense given Apple’s business model focus on selling the highest-quality products. But it does not make sense for Google which just wants to see more internet usage. To achieve this, Google does two main things. First, Google offers many services and development platforms for little or no cost. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Search: all free, to name a few. Second, Google actively attacks pockets of control or profitability in the technology space which could impede internet use. Bad browsers reducing the willingness of people to use the internet? Release the very fast Google Chrome browser. Lack of smartphones? Release the now-very-popular Android operating system. Not enough internet-connected TV solutions? Release Google TV. Not enough people on high-speed broadband? Consider building a pilot high-speed fiber optic network for a lucky community. All of these efforts encourage greater Web usage in two ways: (a) they give people more of a reason to use the Web more by providing high-value web services and “complements” to the web (like browsers and OS’s) at no or low cost and (b) forcing other businesses to lower their own prices and/or offer better services. Granted, these moves oftentimes serve other purposes (weakening competitive threats on the horizon and/or providing new sources of revenue) and aren’t always successes (think OpenSocial or Google Buzz), but I think the Google MO (make the web cheaper and better) is better for all end-users than Apple’s.
  • Choice at the expense of quality – Given Apple’s interest in building the best product and charging for it, they’ve tended to make tradeoffs in their design philosophy to improve performance and usability. This has proven to be very effective for them, but it has its drawbacks. If you have followed recent mobile tech news, you’ll know Apple’s policies on mobile application submissions and restrictions on device functionality have not met with universal applause. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t have the right to do this (clearly they do) or that the tradeoffs they’ve made are bad ones (the number  of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch purchases clearly shows that many people are willing to “live with it”), but it is a philosophical choice. But, this has implications for the ecosystem around Apple versus Google (which favors a different tradeoff). Apple’s philosophy provides great “out of the box” performance, but at the expense of being slower or less able to adopt potential innovations or content due to their own restrictions. image Case in point: a startup called Swype has built a fascinating new way to use soft keyboards on touchscreens, but due to Apple’s App Store not allowing an application that makes such a low-level change, the software is only available on Android phones. Now, this doesn’t preclude Swype from being on the iPhone eventually, but it’s an example where Apple’s approach may impede innovation and consumer choice – something which a recent panel of major mobile game developers expressed concern about — and its my two cents worth that the Google way of doing things is better in the long run.
  • image Platforms vs solutions – Apple’s hallmark is the vertically integrated model, going so far as to have their own semiconductor solution and content store (iTunes). This not only lets them maximize the amount of cash they can pull in from a customer (I don’t just sell you a device, I get a cut of the applications and music you use on it), it also lets them build tightly integrated, high quality product “solution”. Google, however, is not in the business of selling devices and has no interest in one tightly integrated solution: they’d rather get as many people on the internet as possible. So, instead of pursuing the “Jesus phone” approach, they pursue the platform approach, releasing “horizontal” software and services platforms to encourage more companies and more innovators to work with it. With Apple, you only have one supplier and a few product variants. With Google, you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution. A fair response to this would be that this can lead to platform fragmentation, but whether or not there is a destructive amount of it is an open question. Given Apple’s track record the last time it went solo versus platform (something even Steve Jobs admits they didn’t do so well at), I feel this is a major strength for Google’s model in the long-run.
  • (More) open source/standards – Google is unique in the tech space for the extent of its support for open source and open standards. Now, how they’ve handled it isn’t perfect, but if you take a quick glance at their Google Code page, you can see an impressive number of code snippets and projects which they’ve open sourced and contributed to the community. They’ve even gone so far as to provide free project hosting for open source projects. But, even beyond just giving developers access to useful source code, Google has gone further than most companies in supporting open standards going so far as to provide open access to its WebM video codec which it purchased the rights to for ~$100M to provide a open HTML5 video standard and to make it easy to access your data from a Google service however you choose (i.e., IMAP access to Gmail, open API access to Google Calendar and Google Docs, etc.). This is in keeping with Google’s desire to enable more web development and web use, and is a direct consequence of it not relying on selling individual products. Contrast this with an Apple-like model – the services and software are designed to fuel additional sales. As a result, they are well-designed, high-performance, and neatly integrated with the rest of the package, but are much less likely to be open sourced (with a few notable exceptions) or support easy mobility to other devices/platforms. This doesn’t mean Apple’s business model is wrong, but it leads to a different conclusion, one which I don’t think is as good for the end-user in the long run.

These are, of course, broad sweeping generalizations (and don’t capture all the significant differences or the subtle ones between the two companies). Apple, for instance, is at the forefront of contributors to the open source Webkit project which powers many of the internet’s web browsers and is a pioneer behind the multicore processing standard OpenCL. On the flip side, Google’s openness and privacy policies are definitely far from perfect. But, I think those are exceptions to the “broad strokes” I laid out.

In this case, I believe that, while short-term design strength and solution quality may be the strengths of Apple’s current model, I believe in the long run, Google’s model is better for the end-customer because their model is centered around more usage.

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Life without Oxygen

No, that’s not a reference to a Jordin Sparks/Chris Brown song, its the theme for the paper of the month.

imageThis month, in expression of my gratitude to the kind folks at Open Access publisher BioMedCentral for sending me a “clone” of their very adorable mascot Gulliver (picture left), I have decided to do a post spotlighting a very interesting BMC Biology paper on the discovery of metazoans (creatures in the Animal Kingdom) which live in environments completely devoid of oxygen.

The researchers began their quest by looking at the L’Atalante basin (see below), a so-called deep hypersaline anoxic basin (DHAB) in the Mediterranean Sea. The area in question is over 3 km deep, and is rich in hydrogen sulfide and nearly saturated with salt, the result of which prevents oxygen from less salty waters from mixing into the anoxic (without oxygen) zone.


Now, scientists have known about single-celled bacteria and protozoans capable of living without oxygen for quite some time – and so they were expecting to find tons of those in the anoxic sediments in L’Atalante. What they were hoping to find, however, were multicellular animals capable of living permanently there as well. And find them they did. The researchers, in sifting through the sediment, were able to find three species of living, microscopic (~1 millimeter in size, see below) Loriciferans (themselves a newly discovered, but highly diverse set of creatures).


After verifying that they were alive (and not just dead Loriciferans who sank from another layer of water) and able to do basic things like metabolism without air (and not just air-breathers who were “visiting” the anoxic sediments), the researchers set out to try to determine how these Loriciferans were able to survive:

  • without oxygen
  • in such a toxic environment (Hydrogen Sulfides are strong reducing agents)
  • in an environment as salty as the DHAB

Although the researchers didn’t answer these questions with the level of rigor I would have liked to see, they did make two interesting observations which suggest the sorts of adaptations these creatures evolved to cope:

  • Chemical composition of their bodies: The researchers were able to show (see table below) that Loriciferans from the L’Atalante DHAB had higher levels of Magnesium, Silicon, Iron, and Bromine then their non-anoxic cousins, but lower levels of Calcium, Copper, and Zinc. While this wasn’t completely explained, one might hazard a guess that to survive the harsh environment, these Loriciferans evolved new body structure which used different elements to help cope with/shield themselves from the harsh exterior.
  • No mitochondria, only hydrogenosomes: Almost all oxygen-breathing cells have little organelles in them called mitochondria. Mitochondria are responsible for using oxygen to help convert metabolic products into energy cells can consume. When the researchers applied an electron microscope to the cells of these oxygen-free Loriciferans, they were unable to find any mitochondria. Instead, they found an abundance of hydrogenosome-like structures (below, see all the “H”’s). Hydrogenosomes have previously been found in single-celled creatures which live without oxygen. They use hydrogen, instead of oxygen, to help a cell get energy. This is the first time hydrogenosome-like structures have been found in a multi-cellular creature and probably are a vital adaptation for the Loriciferans in order to let them survive in the DHABs.

Found 3 new species of animal life capable of surviving without oxygen? Sounds like a naturalist’s dream come true. But where does one go from here? From my perspective, I’m most interested in two things.

The first is an extension of the studies the researchers conducted on how these creatures have been able to survive. Identifying “hydrogenosome-like organelles” and high-level “chemical/structural adaptations” is cool, but unsatisfying for anyone trained in basic biology. I want to understand how similar those hydrogenosome-like structures are to hydrogenosomes from single-celled creatures. I want to know what genes are responsible for the hydrogenosome-like structures. I want to understand what the different chemical and structural adaptations do!

The second area of investigation is ecological in nature. What exactly does the food web look like down there? Its great that we’ve found single-celled and multi-cellular creatures, but how do they interact?

Paper: Danovaro, Roberto et al. “The first metazoa living in permanently anoxic conditions.” BMC Biology 8:30 (6 Apr 2010) – doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-30

(Image credit – Gulliver’s Facebook page) (Figures from Additional File 1, Figure 1, Additional File 4, Figure 4 of paper)

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