Ultimately, Android Isn't Open

One of the advantages cited by Android users is that it is an open operating system, and technically that is correct. By the time a user gets his hands on a phone though, it has been morphed into a system that is as closed as any other.
One of the advantages cited by Android users is that it is an open operating system, and technically that is correct. By the time a user gets his hands on a phone though, it has been morphed into a system that is as closed as any other.It isn't very hard to find someone supporting Linux and touting that the operating system is open. They claim it makes the system more secure because everyone can see the code and plug holes, and share those plugs. You can also take the OS and tailor it to your specific needs by changing the source code rather than writing an application or service on top of the platform to get the desired results. Despite these and other advantages though, Linux hasn't made significant inroads to key business systems compared to the closed systems provided by Microsoft, Apple and IBM. One of the biggest reasons is firms need to be able to bring in the makers of a product to fix a problem that threatens to bring the business to a halt. Posting problems and looking for solutions on development sites doesn't cut it.

Open source software like Linux hasn't made significant inroads on the desktop either. The last time it had a major shot was when netbooks started shipping with some form of Linux on it a few years ago. Consumers almost got whiplash from the speed at which they turned around to return the netbook in favor of one running Windows XP.

The mobile market is shaping up differently though. After nearly a decade of false starts with various Linux powered devices, Google hit on a successful formula with Android. The only thing that is really open though is what the manufacturers get their hands on. Once they and the carriers get done with it, the system is pretty much closed again, and not at all standard.

When you buy an iPhone, you know stuff will just work on it. Apple seems to support three generations of devices on average. Only now with iOS4 being available are the original 2007 2G iPhones being left behind with iOS3. It remains to be seen whether or not all of Palm's WebOS devices will get 2.0, but if they don't, that will just be another nail in WebOS's coffin for mobile phone use. Microsoft has also adopted Apple's strong arm tactics with Windows Phone 7 telling the carriers and handset makers that Microsoft, not them, will provide upgrades and keep everyone happy and up to date for a generation or two.

Android though, the open system, is struggling with fragmentation. There are several different variants of Android that may be on your brand new Android device and that makes it hard for users to get a consistent experience. That is frustrating when your friends or co-workers have a newer version that adds features and you are stuck waiting on your carrier to do something. The carriers, for all intents and purposes, have locked the platform down to their particular flavor of the platform.

This goes beyond the user interface. HTC has Sense, Motorola has MotoBlur and other manufacturers do their own thing. So far, so good as the interfaces can usually be turned off, so the retains control. Sometimes though, there are changes the user can do little about.

TechCrunch has some good examples of this. Often called crapware, mobile phones powered by Android are the new delivery vehicle for this junk. The Droid X, which is brand new from Verizon, ships with a Blockbuster app that you cannot remove. It also ships with a racing game called Need for Speed which is really only trial software. This is the kind of crap we've seen on feature phones for years, but now you get to pay big bucks for it on your smartphone. What advantage does open have here for the consumer? None. Ironically, it is the open model that allows this. As TechCrunch notes, Apple would never allow any carrier to sully the iPhone like that. Palm hasn't allowed it and Microsoft had sure better not. They did with Windows Mobile 5 and 6.x devices and that is part of the reason for the rapid decline of that platform.

Chances are, this won't change. Carriers love mucking up phones with their proprietary software, but time and time again it is shown that the cleaner and more standard a platform is, the more successful it is and the happier the users are. Honestly, sometimes I don't think the carriers want you to be too happy with their handsets. Oh sure, happy enough to buy them and enjoy them for a few months, but definitely not so happy as to keep them for a few years. They like handset churn. It locks you into contracts and they get to put more revenue generating adware/crapware on the device, perpetuating the circle.

Users would be better off if Google changed the license model to close off certain aspects of the platform or restrict certain behavior of handset makers and carriers.

This is all very new of course. Android is headed to the top right now, but no one knows if it will stay there or fragment itself into oblivion while closed systems provide a more enjoyable experience. We'll have to wait a few years to see how it plays out. If Google doesn't make some sort of change, even if that is to get just gentlemen's agreements from the carriers, Android will have a sizable group of users and developers that revile the platform.

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