The Android Openness Delusion

Android is on a roll! That’s what we hear every day in the press and it seems to be true. My personal experience seem to validate this. I must, however, take all this anecdotal “evidence” with a pinch of salt because I work in telecommunications sector and it’s not the best sample.

Every time you speak with an Android user they always tell you about the openness. The platform is open source, you can buy it from any manufacturer and carrier you like, Google doesn’t rule the Android Market with an iron fist. The fact that the platform is sponsored by the bastion of openness Google, only reinforces this myth further. On the surface of it, it would seem that Android is indeed the holy grail of a completely open mobile OS platform. The only problem is that it isn’t. So, what is wrong with this picture? Let’s tackle the issues one by one:

The Open Handset Alliance
We have seen a lot of alliances and foundations come and go. OHA is not much different from a lot of committees in most respects. From what we have seen, it’s still heavily dominated by Google engineers and Google sets most of the agenda. At the heart of Android idea and implementation is ability for Google to push more and more adverts. That’s what the whole thing is about. Google needs be where the eyeballs are and it’s clear that they are shifting to mobile devices. OHA is just a front for Google to push it’s agenda.

Open Source
Android is open source and therefore you can take it and do anything you want with it. But can you really? As Robert Werlinger blogged recently, the only truly open components are camera, GPS, WIFI, Sensors, 3D , Bluetooth, and Market. Needless to say those things alone can’t make a smartphone.

Openness is about choice. Android must be open because you can get it from Samsung, Motorola, HTC, Lenovo and even Dell.
That must be great for consumers, all that competition will drive down the prices. By that token Windows Mobile (or whatever they call it these days) is open too. The problem, though, is that it’s the wrong indicator. How many manufacturers can sell a platform doesn’t make it open. It only means that there will be a price war, lower margins, weird customizations in an effort to differentiate and overall a fragmented user experience and developer platform.

They seem be the weakest link in this chain. They would love to monetize the pipe and get a toll on anything that goes through it. Google seem to be their best hope of doing it. They love rev-share, it does sound good on paper that Google will share the ad and app revenue with them. Apple doesn’t let them come even miles near the App Store, so this is their chance to finally get some piece of the action. Only time will tell. But most likely Google will avoid them like plague as soon as Google would not need them. They should be focussed on bringing true value-add and not just try to behave like toll collectors.

Android Market
I must say, I don’t have much experience with Android Market. I have used it a couple of times and in the Czech Republic you still cannot buy paid apps and developers can’t sell the apps. Only free apps are allowed. Android market is indeed open in the sense that it doesn’t require every app to go through a central approval process. I think Google would love to have the kind of control Apple has over the app store, but this doesn’t work for Google right now. They need to attract the devs to their fledgling platform and an approval process will only slow it down. They are losing both on quantity and quality at the moment, and honestly, this is not going to change any time soon. Anyway, on the topic of openness, the remote kill switch for the apps and homing to Google to verify the authenticity of an app doesn’t seem too open. Where is the outrage?

This is not an Android bashing post and don’t get me wrong, I believe eventually Android will have bigger market share than the iPhone (or Blackberry for that matter). I actually use an HTC Desire from time to time (mostly when I need a MiFi network for my iPad). Luckily I was able to update to FroYo as soon as HTC made it available and my carrier allowed it immediately. Most of my friends were not so lucky though, they are still waiting for Samsung or HTC or their carrier to “allow” the upgrade. That too doesn’t sound too open to me.

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