Friday, May 21, 2010

The Illusion of Open

Posted by Hidayat Hidayat at 9:00 AM
Today, on Twitter, I've been having some back and forth with John Wilker, one of the founders of the 360|iDev Conferences about Android and the concept of "openness". The discussion really helped to clarify some of my thoughts on the matter (thanks, John!).

Now, I've been somewhat harsh on Android at times, but the things I'm harsh about are details and personal programming platform preferences. It's actually a pretty good platform with a huge amount of potential. It now appears to have reached the critical mass needed to really propel it forward, and I do have high hopes that it will keep moving forward, getting better, and pressuring Apple to do even more amazing things than they would have otherwise done.

Yesterday, Google IO ended, and it was clear from the tone of the conference that Google is planning to put up some fierce competition to Apple on several fronts, and that's good. A lot of Google's pitch was focused on this idea of "openness" - that Google's stuff is inherently more "open" (except, of course, the stuff they make money from, but that's a whole separate topic) and therefore better for the user. Tim Bray, Google's Android Evangelist, went off on a rather enthusiastic but somewhat silly Twitter rant a few days ago about openness and the "curated experience" of the iPhone. It's clear that Google sees "openness" as a competitive advantage over Apple and has made it their battle cry in the mobile space.

But, not too long ago, Google announced that it was ending direct sales of their phone, the Nexus One.

Here's the reality of the Android situation now: if you buy an Android phone, it will most likely be locked down by your carrier, possibly also with some features disabled. Or, to use Tim Bray's term, the reality is that most Android phones that get bought are a "curated experience".

In some places, some carriers will sell unlocked phones, but for a great many people, if you want an open Android phone, you will be required to buy one from a carrier and jailbreak it, which is likely a violation of your subscriber agreement. If you don't jailbreak it, you may not get future Android updates. If you buy an Android phone and don't jailbreak it, you might spend the entire life of your phone using the Android version that shipped on it. Your vendor could even charge you a ridiculous monthly fee for the upgrade, something that at least Verizon has considered doing. Even if your carrier does provide updates for free and regularly, there will be a delay as the vendor and provider add all their customizations and restrictions on top of the official Android release.

For the vast majority of people who will buy Android phones, "open" is an illusion because now that Google has abandoned their direct sales model, Android firmly puts the final decision making power for the overall experience of the phone back into the hands of the traditional carrier/vendor relationship that ruled the space before the iPhone came out. Apple, unlike other phone vendors, is capable of going toe-to-toe with the carriers and is willing to do so to fight for a better user experience. That's why we don't have AT&T branding all over our iPhones. That's why we don't have the mandatory 15-second spiel before voicemail that Verizon users have to suffer through. Apple is at least an equal partner with the carriers who sell their phones. Most of the other phone vendors, to put it bluntly, are the carriers' bitches.

Does Android have some nice features that the iPhone doesn't? Absolutely. Is Android improving? No doubt about it and on a regular basis to boot. But, by putting the real power back in the hand of the carriers and their vendor partners, the user experience is never going to be as important in the decision making process as it is for the iPhone. Even if the Android team manages to make the overall experience better than the iPhone (which I consider unlikely, but possible), the carriers will almost certainly screw it up with their ham-handed customizations and restrictions.

If you're going to have a curated experience, isn't it better to at least have one where the curator is making their decisions primarily around the quality of your experience?

Unless Google resumes direct sales or puts licensing limitations on the carriers to prevent them from locking down Android phones, "open" will be just another empty marketing slogan. And I suspect that's what it will be. Google doesn't really care about the user experience, they just want to keep making money on their proprietary, non-open advertising in the mobile space the way they have on the web, and the more Android phones that are out there, the more phones that will be getting Google Ads. Hell, Google even discussed the possibility of unblockable ads at Google IO!

Right. Nothing screams "open" like unblockable advertisements served using proprietary algorithms based on personal data that's been collected about what you do online.

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