The myth of Google Android "openness"

Sure, Google Android phones are open, offering unlimited options for customization. That's why they're better than the closed-off, proprietary, locked-down iPhone. Just ask any Android fan, they'll tell you. But that's just plain wrong.

Well, it's part-right. Android is open -- for the telecom vendor. They're free to modify and customize Android as they see fit. And they use that ability to lock users into their crapware and limited options, argues TechCrunch's M.G. Siegler in a post with the pungent title: "Android Is As Open As The Clenched Fist I’d Like To Punch The Carriers With."

This past weekend, I wrote a post wondering if Android was surging in the U.S. market because Apple was letting it? The main thought was that by remaining exclusively tied to AT&T, Apple was driving some users to choose Android, which is available on all the U.S. carriers. In the post, I posed a question: if it’s not the iPhone/AT&T deal, why do you choose Android? Nearly 1,000 people responded, and a large percentage focused on the same idea: the idea of “openness.”

You’ll forgive me, but I have to say it: what a load of crap.

In theory, I’m right there with you. The thought of a truly open mobile operating system is very appealing. The problem is that in practice, that’s just simply not the reality of the situation. Maybe if Google had their way, the system would be truly open. But they don’t. Sadly, they have to deal with a very big roadblock: the carriers.

The result of this unfortunate situation is that the so-called open system is quickly revealing itself to be anything but. Further, we’re starting to see that in some cases the carriers may actually be able to exploit this “openness” to create a closed system that may leave you crying for Apple’s closed system — at least theirs looks good and behaves as expected.

Monkey behind bars

The EVO 4G and Droid 2 are loaded up with crapware installed by carriers, some of which can't be deleted. Verizon will likely install its V Cast app store on future Android phones. Motorola and AT&T have locked down the Backflip and HTC Aria, respectively, so you can't install apps without going through an app store -- eliminating one of the great benefits of Android over the iPhone, Siegler says.

Carrier lockdown has slowed upgrades. Only 4.5% of Android phones are running the latest version of the OS, version 2.2, "Froyo." And 35% aren't running any version of Android 2.x.

Update: The preceding figures (which I got from the TechCrunch article), are off. According to the Android developer web site, Froyo runs on 29% of Android phones, and just under 30% aren't running 2.x. 

Also, Verizon is the only vendor that supports Skype on Android.

Speaking of Verizon, Siegler follows up with another excellent post this weekend, arguing that Verizon loves to provide the kind of customization that cripples phones and locks in users, and that's likely why we haven't seen an Verizon iPhone yet, because Apple won't stand for it.

Carrier lockdown is one of the main reasons why Android vs. iPhone is not a repeat of the history of Windows vs. Mac. Tech bloggers love to draw that comparison, but it's wrong. In the Windows relationship with hardware manufacturers, Microsoft had the upper hand. Because Windows was proprietary, Microsoft always had the power to control licensing terms for Windows. It was a powerful bargaining tool. They used that power to enforce a uniform user experience on vendors, which benefited users a great deal (even though vendors could and did load a lot of crapware on their systems). But Android is open source, and any carrier can use it, giving Google no bargaining power at all.

Not a big deal for most

Android advocates like to boast that they can root their devices, and install whatever they want on it. And that's true -- but it only effects a very small percentage of users, the ones with the time and skill to do it. The vast majority of users can't and won't root. And iPhone users can jailbreak their devices, and get the same flexibility.

Open vs. proprietary just isn't an issue for the vast majority of users. They don't care. Nor should they, they have more important things to worry about, like their jobs and families. They just want a sexy phone that does what they need it to do. And I'm right with them. I have this blog to write, and my business to run, and, when I'm done with that, why, I hear there's this thing called "leisure time" that some people have enjoyed on occasion. I just want my phone to work, and give me some shiny new apps to play with every once in a while.

When I'm recommending phones to friends and colleagues, openness doesn't enter into it. In July, Computerworld published an article by me arguing that the HTC EVO 4G is a better choice than iPhone for first-time smartphone buyers. And that's true -- but it's a thought-experiment. The "first-time smartphone buyer" is a bit of a mythical creature, like a perfect gas in physics, or a unicorn or jackalope. Real people have real needs for phones that kick in before getting into abstract questions of which phone is better in a theoretical sense.

For example: Friday, I had lunch with a colleague at my client Palisade Systems. She said she's looking to replace her BlackBerry, and asked me for a recommendation. I told her I'm happy with my iPhone 4. She asked if that's what I recommend. I asked her if AT&T service is good where she lives. She made a face and said it isn't. I responded, "Then you shouldn't get an iPhone, iPhone is AT&T-only."


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I asked her which carrier she used, she said Verizon, and that she's very happy with it. So I advised her to either get the latest BlackBerry -- because she's happy with her 'berry, just wants something with more pep -- or to get a Droid X. I made these suggestions, not out of any theoretical beliefs about "openness" or which phone is better in the lab, but based on what I thought would be best for her.

Hard benefits

Android's openness would matter to me if it gave me some clearly defined benefits, not some theoretical improvements in the future or the ability to make modifications to my phone that don't interest me, and won't pay off until some imagined tomorrow Are there apps available for Android that aren't on iPhone? I'll give you two, and they're big ones:

- Tethering: As Siegler points out, it's not available for every carrier, but it's available on Sprint and other carriers. The ability to use your smartphone as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot is huge, especially for (ironically enough) users of the low-end iPad.The iPhone lets you tether, but requires a Bluetooth connection, rather than using Wi-Fi. And it doesn't work with the low-end iPad. 

- The Google Voice app. This one is only important to the relatively small number of people who use Google Voice as their primary phone. But I'm one of those people. Google Voice integrates into your Android phone, your Google Voice number just becomes your Android number. Apple blocked the Google Voice app from the App Store, and using Google Voice on the iPhone is a bit of a mess.

What other apps are available on Android that aren't available on iPhone? Please don't recommend apps that let you customize the UI, input method, or perform system maintenance. You shouldn't have to do those things, the phone should just work.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

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