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Android Pulls Tethering App? Goodness! You Mean “Open” Isn’t Open?

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The hoopla around Google’s (s goog) Android mobile OS, and the resulting apps in the Android Market, is pretty strong. It’s laid on thick and fast. You know the drill; it’s “open” so it’ll be free from all the constraints imposed by The Man, etc.

Oops, maybe not. I’m not sure why people believed the steaming pile of hyperbole coming out of the “open” pundits, but it was just a matter of time before reality stepped in. Google has pulled tethering apps from the market.

There was no way this kind of filtering was not going to happen, and I said so here and here. In fact, in the latter article I even used tethering as a specific example:

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…

Despite what some may claim, “open” does not mean it’s open season on copyright violations or any other activities prohibited by TOS, contracts, license agreements, etc. We may want it to mean those things, but that doesn’t make it so. With all the advantages of a central app store comes the responsibility to police it. One can certainly argue that such policing is not done evenhandedly, or favors the larger partners involved, but this too is par for the course and beside the point anyway. The point is that “open” does not mean anything like free reign, and never did.

There are some who may argue this limits innovation, and while I see the point, I’m not sure I can agree. Certainly it doesn’t apply to tethering, which is hardly new. There is no innovation going on there from a software or hardware standpoint. The innovation needed from tethering must come from the carriers in how they handle this extremely useful feature (and that’s the subject of another article).

It’s hard to make a case for honoring contractual obligations or EULAs, or not violating existing copyrights, as being blocks to innovation. I see them more as blocks to questionable legal activity.

Meanwhile, the “open” community will probably condemn Google’s action, then deny it, then rationalize it, and then defend it. Finally, they’ll get right back to touting how “open” is the panacea; the cure for all that ails us, and everything Apple’s (s aapl) App Store is not. As before, they’ll be wrong, but I’m sure some will still believe it.

16 Responses to “Android Pulls Tethering App? Goodness! You Mean “Open” Isn’t Open?”

  1. Tom Cole

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    One point obviously has to do with Google accepting some level of responsibility for what gets posted on the app store they manage. It’s hard to not imagine this behavior as a requirement enforced by their own team of lawyers – there is no way to avoid being held at least somewhat responsible for a marketplace that you build and suppport.

    It will be interesting to see how the various players respond to tethering (or similar) applications that are sold outside the approved market place. At some point, if the carrier really wants to control access to a feature like tethering to protect a revenue potential, they are going to have to find a way to disallow tethering except from approved applications that participate in the revenue sharing, or they are going to end up trying to block tethered access entirely. Both cut deeply into the declaration of openness to a significant degree – it’s like having Linux because it’s open but then having your ISP prevent you from using anything except pre-approved (and paid-for) ports. This isn’t the openness that was envisioned by most people, I would think.

    I do find it interesting to read about the folks (not just with G1, the same occurs with iPhones) who read the user license and then promptly ignore it, claiming that they bought the hardware and can bloody well do what they want with it. I’m not a lawyer, and wouldn’t even want to watch one on TV, but it’s hard to rationalize how users buy hardware that comes with implicit (as in “click here to agree to terms of service”) end user licensing requirements and then claim not to be bound by them. Somewhere, too many of us are just looking for a way to cut our own deal. Most of us didn’t invent a smartphone we like, or build out a wireless network to support it. But since someone else did, some of us think is perfectly ethical to take someone else’s work under our own terms and conditions instead of those who created the device/feature/service we want to use.

    Finally, until someone creates an “open” wireless carrier, this is all ultimately likely to be moot – the carrier is looking for ways to make money to justify the huge capital costs of building the network. Every innovation will be viewed in terms of what monetization opportunities exist for it. That is the natural behavior of capitalism. Neither good nor bad, just true. Attempts to graft a truely open and freely evolving mobile phone to a closed and controlled infrastructure are going to constantly be chipping away at the definition of “open”, I would think.

    Maybe Google should put some of its massive resources into building out the open network to go with the open software in order to have a chance at fully realizing their dream. But of course, they’ll have to find a way to monetize that as well. Pop up ads when you dial your phone, anyone?

  2. Bart,

    “There is nothing “questionable” in an application that enables tethering. Period.”

    True, but I was referring to the app in the context of installing it on a device whose carrier does not allow tethering. I thought that was clear, but I guess not. Anyway, in such a case it’s absolutely questionable. Google agrees with me, which is why they pulled it.


    I appreciate the difference between installing from one store as opposed to having other options, but that has nothing to do with Android’s “openness”. One can install from multiple sources on Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and Palm devices and nobody would consider those devices open.

    The point of my article is that when Google announced the market they made a big deal out of how “open” it was. In fact, they used the open atmosphere to help explain why they called it a market. This steaming pile of hyperbole was spread far and wide. But it seemed clear that the market would have to fall under the same policing the App Store does, and we now see that’s the case. THAT is what my article is about.

    Should the carriers get their heads our of their rectums in regard to tethering? I think so. Is there a big advantage to having alternate sources of mobile apps in addition to a main store, marketplace, or whatever they call it? That’s debatable. But neither topic changes my post.

  3. It’s not about how “easy” it is. It’s about legality. Generally speaking, installing apps that aren’t on the android market place is not illegal. Jailbreaking is.

    Obviously if you decide to install a bittorrent client and download copyrighted material that is illegal and i wouldn’t argue that. But it’s not up to google or apple to make it illegal for you to install a bittorrent client.

    Apple’s criteria for what is taken down from the apple store is questionable at best. I like the idea that what i can install is not dictated and restricted by the business interests of one company.

  4. Tom, you’re doing it again. There is nothing “questionable” in an application that enables tethering. Period. The only thing that might be questionable is a user using such an application on a network of a provider that forbids tethering per EULA.

  5. It appears lots of you are cool with getting apps that break EULAs, copyrights, etc., and think this ability is because Android is “open”. But an iPhone user can do the same thing via jailbreaking, so I don’t follow the point being made.

    Any point that revolves around Google making questionable apps “easier” than Apple does, well, that’s a weak point at best.

  6. @Tom Reestman #6: the title of the article: … “you mean open is not really open” suggests to me that google is stopping you from installing tethering apps on you phone. This is NOT the case it is simply not selling them. I can’t understand why you are suggesting this is the same as apple.

    @Micheal the fact that most users won’t go beyond the market place doesn’t change the fact that the device is basically open and you can install what you want on it. Google can’t be expected to endorse every single app that is written for the Android platform.

  7. “My point is that Android being “open” does not make these types of apps any less questionable”. What exactly is questionable in an app that enables tethering? I think the fact that a lot of providers (not all of them, btw!) put ridiculous restrictions in their contracts is questionable. In a way it’s like selling a car but forbid the buyer to drive on the highway with it.

    Creating an application that enables a useful feature like tethering is not different that selling a car that can drive at 250 km/h in a country where the speed limit is 120 km/h. It is the responsibility of the driver to not break the law by driving too fast. And so it is the responsibility of the user of a phone to not break his contract with his provider, whether or not the contract contains ridiculous constraints. And if a driver or user decides to break the law or his contract, than it is his own decision and he has to face the consequences.

  8. Android still has all the advantages of being open, you can install any app you like. Apps of ‘questionable nature’ are still available, they are just not backed by Google, but hey, how surprising is that? That being open somehow changes the nature of what a ‘questionable app’ is, (as you state in comment 7) is held by no-one, and was not certainly not the point of your post.

  9. @James Kendrick although the market place isn’t the only place that you can get apps, the majority of users will get all of their apps from the market place and might not even know that you can install apps from other sources. For those “in the know” it is great that they can install apps from other sources but this means that th majority of users will never be able to enjoy tethering on their Android based device.

  10. I wrote about this today too but there is one thing different about this restriction and that of the iPhone App Store. The Android Market is not the only place that developers can sell and distribute apps. These tethering app guys can still sell it elsewhere or themselves which is not possible for the iPhone.

  11. Policing the marketplace is good and necessary to keep it functioning. The trick is to police it in such a way to keep the playing field even, while not over-regulating it (insert your favorite snarky General Motors comment here).

    Limitations (within reason) actually encourage innovation.

  12. Precisely! Google will soon be as restrictive as apple thanks to all the regulations and stupid people complaining about nudity and stuff.

    I wont be changing my iPhone unless i see major difference in terms of openness with Android.

    Anyway i’m quite happy with my iPhone and if i wanne use my mobile as a modem i always have my nokia that works like a charm :)

  13. The fact that it was open was the ONLY reason I considered having one over the iPhone. I’m really glad I went with the iPhone… (Who am I kidding, I was glad before)