AT&T locks down Android again with HTC Aria

AT&T Android HTC Aria

All right, I'll just say it: AT&T is the most reliable carrier in America.

Not in terms of network performance, mind you -- no, I haven't gone completely nutty. AT&T, rather, is the most reliable carrier when it comes to making headlines for all the wrong reasons. You can always count on 'em for that.

Think about it: The company that everyone loves to hate rarely disappoints. From poor call service to poor customer service -- remember the "e-mail our CEO and we'll take your sorry arse to court" fiasco? -- our friends at AT&T seem to have a real knack for putting their customers' interests last (see also: bait-and-switch-style data plans, recent). The carrier's relationship with Android is no exception.

HTC Aria and AT&T's Android Stance

After holding off on Android longer than any other major U.S. carrier, AT&T finally unveiled its first Android offering, the Motorola Backflip, earlier this year. While the company seemingly opened its arms to Android, however, it failed to actually embrace the platform's open nature.

Android, as those of us who use the operating system know, stands out from other smartphone alternatives due largely to its open and highly customizable constitution. You want something on your phone? You install it. No banning, no porn morality lectures, no need for an manufacturer's arbitrary blessing -- it's your device, and you use it the way you want.

HTC Aria AT&T

With the Backflip, AT&T essentially took the Android software, subtracted that open principle, and slapped a price tag with the word "Android" on the back. Now, with AT&T's latest Android venture -- the HTC Aria -- the carrier's up to its old tricks again.

Like it did with the Backflip, AT&T has removed the option to install unofficial apps onto its new HTC Aria phone. If something's outside of the Android Market -- a beta program such as Swype, for example, or one of several tethering apps offered only through developers' Web sites -- you won't be able to install it; the option to do so is mysteriously missing from the "Applications" settings menu where it'd typically be found.

Essentially, AT&T quietly stripped a core part of the Android experience away.

(There is a backdoor way to get around the restrictions, but it's a relatively complex procedure involving use of the Android software development kit. Most casual users wouldn't know about it and probably wouldn't mess around with it even if they did.)

AT&T's Android Explanation

Back when the Backflip came out, I dug around for an explanation. AT&T, not surprisingly, didn't want to say much. Google's Android team told me AT&T's phones weren't Google-branded products, so they had no knowledge of what went into the decisions. And Motorola wasn't able to comment.

I found a thread in an official Motorola support forum, however, that provided a sliver of insight. When asked about the atypical Android app lockdown, a user whose account was labeled as a "MOTO XPRT" responded with the following:

"This is a known issue, and I will report back when I find something out."

Several hours later, he followed up with this:

"Looks like AT&T turned it off. Don't know what to say about that..."

And shortly thereafter:

"Not going into pointing fingers here, but all other current Moto Android phones (Droid - VZW, Cliq - Tmo, Devour - VZW) have this feature installed."

AT&T's Wireless CEO, Ralph de la Vega, later offered an enlightening statement about his company's approach to Android:

"We like the Android as an operating system on its own, but we want to make sure that we have and customers have the option to put applications on that device that are not just Google applications," he said.

"Provided that those applications don't prevent us from making extra money off said customers," he probably should have added.

AT&T and Android: The Real Story

Yep, you guessed it: The most likely explanation comes down to cash and control. Put simply, AT&T wants to be able to have a say in what you put on your phone. Think about tethering, for example: The company stands to make money by charging a monthly fee for the service. With Android, you can install a tethering app and get the same functionality for free.

Some tethering apps are available in the official Android Market, but AT&T can take steps to block access to those. If it allows you the standard Android ability to install apps from non-Market sources, it loses that power.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Control is something we typically discuss when looking at Apple's mobile products. It's a damn shame to see Android being tainted with that same restrictive mindset.

I'd e-mail AT&T's CEO directly to express my concern, but I'm pretty sure he'd just send a cease-and-desist letter in response.

Author JR Raphael writes the new Android Power blog at Computerworld. You can find him on Facebook: facebook.com/The.JR.Raphael

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