Android IS open -- but 'open' means different things

Article copyright 2010 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Android Is Open

When you talk about Android, you hear a lot about the idea of "openness."

Sometimes, people use "openness" to describe what you can do with your phone. After all, Android as an operating system lets you customize and control your experience far more than certain (ahem) other mobile platforms. For most of us, that's a core part of what makes Android so appealing: It's your phone, and thanks to Android, you can use it the way you want.

Some recent developments, however, have challenged that definition. With the launch of Verizon's Samsung Fascinate last week, we learned that Verizon had locked the phone down to Bing for search. Big Red didn't just set Microsoft as the default engine; it actually took steps to keep you from changing it. 

Verizon isn't the first carrier to toy with the idea of tying down Android: AT&T has made a habit out of restricting app access, and practically every carrier has sold devices with baked-in UIs that get in the way of the upgrade process.

It goes without saying that these decisions are disappointing. They're difficult to defend, and they certainly aren't desirable from a consumer perspective. But that brings us to the bigger point: Android's openness isn't just about consumers. Yes, the operating system allows for ample customization and control -- but that power begins with the carriers and manufacturers. Android is open source software, and the people who sell the devices have the first shot at modifying it.

Now, does that mean that Android's openness is a "myth," as my fellow Computerworld scribe Mitch Wagner posits -- or, as Apple-loving TechCrunch prophet MG Siegler so eloquently proclaims, "Android is as open as the clenched fist I'd like to punch the carriers with"? Is an entire operating system damned because of what a couple of carriers have chosen to do with it? Of course not.

The reality is that Android itself is as strong as it's ever been. Sure, you're going to have companies that make decisions we don't all like. That's the nature of an open system; anyone can manipulate it to meet their needs, and those needs can ultimately enhance or limit the user experience. (Android also makes its entire source code available to developers, by the way, which allows for in-depth innovation beyond just the carrier level. That's about as open as you can get.) Whether we're talking about

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hardware or software, the important thing to remember about an open system is that there's always a choice. There are still plenty of high-end Android phones available that won't tie you down. It's up to you what you buy; unlike a proprietary platform, this isn't a one-size-fits-all world.

On top of that, let's be honest: In the grand scheme of smartphones, even the Android phones that have carrier-implemented restrictions -- while far from ideal -- aren't so awful. There are ways to get around almost any Android limitation, and we aren't even talking about advanced root-related options. You can replace a phone's interface by installing a custom launcher. You can tweak a couple of settings to weaken the Fascinate's cling to Bing (see this handy two-part guide from the good folks at Android Central). That's the beauty of Android: It's an open market. Customization -- if you want it -- is a cinch. 

Mitch Wagner theorizes that "open vs. proprietary just isn't an issue for the vast majority of users." And he's right: Most people aren't concerned about the principles of openness. But plenty of users, both novice and advanced, do like the practical advantages that come with an open ecosystem: being able to load any application they want, for example, or being able to choose any piece of hardware that suits their needs -- one with a large screen, a physical keyboard, or whatever. Beyond that, plenty of users like being able to make their phones look and perform the way they want. This just in: A cookie-cutter home screen with simple rows of static icons isn't for everyone.


Mitch tells us of The myth of Google Android "openness"

JR says Android IS open -- but 'open' means different things

Mitch writes much of this off, saying: "You shouldn't have to do those things; the phone should just work." The problem with Mitch's assessment is that it's stuck in the mindset of a dedicated iPhone user. If that's how you think, that's fine. But lots of us do like the idea of choice, as whimsical as it may seem to certain crowds. Lots of us like saying "no thanks" to a limited and censored app selection. Lots of us like being able to do what we want with our devices -- or, if we come across a device that doesn't allow the freedoms we desire, being able to select another one within the platform that does. 

Android is open, but you have to remember that "openness" means different things. Of course it's disheartening to see companies creating subpar Android experiences. But a couple of carriers' questionable decisions don't erase the open foundation and sea of choice the platform provides.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, on Twitter, or at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway.


Article copyright 2010 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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