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Summary:

Mark Sigal at GigaOM wrote a nice article that questions if, essentially, “open” is all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve written about this before, and agree with Sigal’s take. He sums up one aspect of it especially well when he says: The reality is that […]

android-open

Mark Sigal at GigaOM wrote a nice article that questions if, essentially, “open” is all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve written about this before, and agree with Sigal’s take. He sums up one aspect of it especially well when he says:

The reality is that openness is just an attribute -– it’s not an outcome, and customers buy outcomes. They want the entire solution and they want it to work predictability. Only a tiny minority actually cares about how or why it works.

That really helps to explain how things are viewed from the end user perspective. Only the geeks among us tend to consider or wonder how something works, or came to be. The majority of the population just wants something that works, is reliable, is easy to use, and solves a problem.

However, Sigal does not get into it much from a vendor perspective, where the “obstacles” are not usually discussed, especially by iPhone competitors. Rather, most of these vendors simply plug the word “open,” as if just by saying it everything changes for the better. It’s just talk, but action is another thing altogether.

Consider the issues with trying to innovate in the “open” Android space:

  • If you develop a great new feature to distinguish your offerings, guess what? Everybody else gets that code, too. Your distinguishing feature, in fact, cannot be distinguishing after all.
  • Because of the above, I don’t see any radical innovation in the OS. Sure, incremental improvements, but nothing like what the “open” advocates are envisioning. For most vendors, there’s little incentive to develop something for your competitors.
  • That leaves hardware. But here, too, there’s a problem. Develop hardware with a nice feature Android can take advantage of, and then you have to wait for an app to support it. Who knows how long that will be? And your competitors will get it as well.
  • Once the above app is available, consumers will begin to find out that an “Android app” is not quite what it claims to be (i.e., it runs on an “Android phone”). The disparate hardware will mean there will be plenty of apps that won’t run properly on their particular “Android phone.”
  • If Android becomes popular, developers will tend to go with the lowest common denominator hardware so as to reach the widest audience possible.

Compare those last two points to the iPhone universe, where there is little of this from a hardware standpoint. Sure, the two generations of iPhones and iPod touches are not exactly hardware equivalent, but for the most part an “iPhone app” will run on them all. My point is that while some differences in platform generations are unavoidable, Apple can keep those differences fairly minimal — Google cannot.

And for all the criticism of Apple over its blocking of some apps, it strikes me as silly to think Google won’t have to play traffic cop on the Android platform. A more sober assessment of the “open” utopia must still conclude that, for example, wholesale copyright violation is not going to be allowed there, either. Such apps, if they appear, are going to be a problem for Android in general, and Google in particular, since that’s where the OS complaints will be leveled.

What I think we’ll to continue to see are Apple’s competitors screaming the word “open” as if it’s the panacea, and decrying “proprietary” as if it’s the Eighth Deadly Sin. Yet for all that talk we’ll see the “open” platform get little in the way of real innovation — because the dozens of “partners” can’t even agree on where to have lunch, let alone take the platform — and the “closed” platform continue to stay well ahead of the game.

Frankly, “closed” is where all the innovation in the mobile space has taken place (hence everybody trying to copy it at the Mobile World Congress), and I don’t see how 50 vendors looking out for what’s best for them (not their customers) will change that.

  1. I totally agree but I think there is a difference in the “open” strategy that might give Android an advantage with the end consumer, albeit one that can’t be talked about publicly.

    Android’s “open-ness” will mean that it will be able to support pornography and illegal apps, particularly IP theft apps like emulators. This is because while Google will control the android app store, there is a possibility of alternative sources for installations of files and alternative “underground” stores.

    No one will really talk about this in public much, but an absolutely huge amount of average people don’t care about IP theft, and a similar number are into pornography (and by that I mean the horrorshow stuff as well as the standard sexual stuff).

    All Android has to be is roughly equivalent in features to the iPhone and Mr. AverageDude will look at it and see that it’s basically as good, but also has porn and game emulators. Android will be the platform of choice for anyone wanting to do almost anything that’s illegal, embarrassing, or offensive. Sadly, that’s a big market.

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  2. This is completely missing the point.

    There are iPhone owners like myself who are frustrated by the sometimes-glaring and legitimate limitations of the iPhone and are at the mercy of Apple for any sort of remedy, if one exists at all. I’m talking about the keyboard, ranging from the lack of one to the slowness of the landscape keyboard to the fact that you can’t use it all that often anyway. Cut and paste — stuff that was doable on Newton. Background tasks by non-blessed apps. Push Gmail. And so on.

    But I suppose if I don’t like it, I can always use something else — and just a few months down the road, there probably will be an Android phone better suited to my needs.

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  3. Gazoobe,

    You are absolutely correct. In some ways it’s similar to the iPhone’s “underground” jailbroken community. Still, the primary channel for Android apps is the Android Marketplace, and I don’t believe the apps you mention can exist there. As I wrote in my other article I linked to:

    “Another example: Tethering is not allowed on the G1, but what if someone like, say, Nullriver posts a tethering app on the Android market place? Hey, it’s “open”, right? Who’s to stop them?

    Naturally, T-Mobile will go to Google to get the app pulled…

    If Google does nothing, then T-Mobile must go after the developer themselves; and they’re also hit with the realization that Google may not want to be a partner when it comes to delivering bad news, only when it comes to taking credit. That’s not a good situation.”

    So, yes, there will be an “underground” app community for Android, but Google will have to play “cop” in the Android Marketplace and block such apps from there.

    Since I believe most Android users (assuming it becomes popular) will use the Marketplace, the “underground” audience will be comparatively small. I don’t think the same Mr. AverageDude who didn’t know there were thousands of Windows Mobile apps will know or mess with anything beyond the Android Marketplace. If the average user were as good/interested in finding apps as you give him credit for, everybody wouldn’t be rushing to copy the App Store concept.

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  4. Champs,

    You raise good points, but where we differ is that somehow Android changes any of it. Android is an OS. Nothing more, nothing less. If you’re of the opinion it will not suffer from any “legitimate limitations”, I think you’re fooling yourself.

    And, yes, you’re “at the mercy of Apple for any sort of remedy” on such issues with the iPhone. No denying that. So, tell me, who are you at the mercy of for the remedy in Android? Who will you complain to? The benevolent open source community? The vendors? Why would HTC (for example) exert any effort addressing a “legitimate limitation” when they’ll just have to hand it over to their competition anyway?

    It’s easy to imagine that 50 “partners” will all pull together on this and get it all cleared up. You’ll forgive me if I’m (incredibly) skeptical.

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  5. Consumers want something that works and add value: an iPhone.

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  6. Wow. You’ve been reading up on your FUD:

    “Once the above app is available, consumers will begin to find out that an ‘Android app’ is not quite what it claims to be (i.e., it runs on an ‘Android phone’). The disparate hardware will mean there will be plenty of apps that won’t run properly on their particular ‘Android phone.’”

    “If Android becomes popular, developers will tend to go with the lowest common denominator hardware so as to reach the widest audience possible.”

    First, I assume you believe that the iPhone will always be this size–there will never be bigger or smaller iPhones. So the whole concept of, say, a NetBook or a Tablet which runs iPhone’s OS X will never exist. We’ll have 480 x 320 163 ppi screens for the rest of our days. Sounds like it’s going to limit innovation a little bit, huh?

    Second, you already see this situation in the iTunes Store. Heck, I went to the iTunes Store, typed in GPS, and picked the first app that showed up: GPS Tracker. In it’s notes, it mentions that this only works in “some places in the US” if you’re using an iPod touch. Take the second app, Motion X GPS. It specifically says that it was designed exclusively for the iPhone 3G. Heck, I went down the list and saw the continuous litany of “Won’t be accurate on the iPhone or iPod touch.”

    Your statements are pure FUD. “Ooh! Android apps won’t work on different phones! You’ll buy this expensive phone and discover your apps won’t work on it! Be afraid! Beee afraaaiiidd!”

    You have absolutely no evidence that this is so. Trust me, it is possible on for Android to detect whether or not you have a GPS device and how big your screen is and for applications to find this out from the operating system. And, if developers want to target the largest number of phones, that means they’ll look up how big the screen is and adjust their interface accordingly.

    And, the best part is if I have an issue, I could actually get a refund! Because developers don’t have to go through a storefront, they can keep all the money and they can provide refunds! Since iPhone developers have to go through the App Store, if you have a problem with an application, you’re pretty much SOL.

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  7. What Peter said.

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  8. Peter,

    YOU SAID: “First, I assume you believe that the iPhone will always be this size–there will never be bigger or smaller iPhones.”

    I absolutely believe that iPhones like the alleged iPhone nano would be ridiculous. It would render many iPhone apps useless, and Apple should be smart enough to know the platform is more important than a “market share grab” that only tech pundits seems to care about. Larger screens are another matter; while some apps may need revising to take advantage of the extra real estate, they’re still usable as originally purchased until then.

    YOU SAID: ““Ooh! Android apps won’t work on different phones! You’ll buy this expensive phone and discover your apps won’t work on it! Be afraid! Beee afraaaiiidd!” You have absolutely no evidence that this is so.”

    I have empirical evidence of the disparate hardware platforms in Windows Mobile and Symbian phones (as just two examples) that have shown, CLEARLY, a fragmentation in the hardware and apps being offered.

    Feel free to tell me how Android will avoid this fate unless all the “partners” in hardware develop handsets with similar feature sets, and all the carriers offer similar services. As you pointed out (though I had already done so), even the iPhone has some hardware differences, and it’s from just one company.

    YOU SAID: “And, if developers want to target the largest number of phones, that means they’ll look up how big the screen is and adjust their interface accordingly.”

    Sure, they could adjust to a small screen. So a button originally designed to be touched by a human finger can now only be touched by the big toe of a centipede. Frankly, I think an “Android nano” would be as stupid as a small iPhone. The difference is that Apple knows not to make one, do the Android hardware vendors?

    And don’t ignore the carriers. Let’s say I write a great app to transfer all your MP3s to your Android phone. Oops! Your Android phone is on Verizon, and maybe they decided they don’t want you putting your own music on the phone; you can use just use their VCAST service thank you very much. Remember that the same phone is frequently sold with various hardware features disabled depending on the carrier. What’s the plan for Android handsets to avoid this same thing?

    Do you think Apple struck deals with specific carriers just to piss off people using other carriers? They needed an agreement in services offered — in so much as that’s possible — to help guarantee a consistent user experience. Heck, RIM couldn’t even get Verizon to allow WiFi on their flagship Storm! The carriers have a lot of pull; they could single-handedly derail Android even if all the hardware vendors held hands and sang “Give Peace a Chance”.

    I’m not saying I WANT any of this, and it sure as hell isn’t FUD. It’s what we’ve all SEEN before, and I’ve heard no good explanations as to how Android will avoid this fate. Too many witches spoil the brew.

    But enough of this.

    We could argue all day and get nowhere. You think I’m spreading FUD (as if I’m in any position to do so). OK. I think you have a simplistic view that GROSSLY underestimates the task before Android and the ability (or even desire) of this coalition of “partners” to pull it off.

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  9. @ Peter = Owned oh oh.

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  10. Most of your problem with android seems to lie in the fact that there is a software company and different hardware companies. This does seem to be a limitation in for example windows mobile (but that is a shitty piece of software anyway). However, it is also the concept behind desktop windows, the most popular os around. The large variety in devices is a mixed blessing, bringing choice (good) and the possibility of incompatibilities/instabilities (bad). It is not, however, à priori a bad thing, as windows has shown.

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