Blog Post

When Open Platforms Get Closed: AT&T Cripples Backflip

The strength of an open platform is the flexibility it offers to companies, developers and consumers. That openness is a factor in the rapid growth of the Android (s goog) platform in the smartphone world. Companies can customize the interface, such as HTC with Sense, and consumers can install any Android apps they desire in order to personalize the user experience. AT&T (s t) has just entered the Android space with the Backflip by Motorola (s mot), but as new owners are pointing out, the phone is crippled to the point of being a closed device.

We’d already heard that AT&T had replaced Google search with Yahoo search (s yhoo) throughout the phone. This move alone is rather bizarre, given consumer preference for Google search and especially since Android is Google’s own platform. And now complaints are surfacing that the carrier wasn’t content to stop there in crippling the Backflip.

AT&T has pre-installed some special apps that are not part of the Android package — AT&T programs tied to the carrier’s network that offer functions often better served by regular Android programs. There are a dozen of these special apps, but while normally users could just ignore them if they don’t want to use them — or better yet, uninstall them — unfortunately, AT&T has taken away the user’s ability to remove this bloatware from the Backflip. The carrier can’t make you use the special apps, but it can darn sure prevent you from removing them in order to save space.

Most Android owners get apps from the Android Market — a good source, to be sure. A strength of the open Android platform is the ability to download and install apps from third-party sites, too, such as directly from developers. This is often how beta versions of new apps get distributed. Unfortunately, this is not possible on the AT&T Backflip. The carrier has disabled the ability of users to install apps from any source other than the Android Market. This must make the Backflip the only Android phone in consumer’s hands that lacks this function.

It’s one thing for a carrier to leave its mark on a handset it carries. That’s business as usual. But effectively closing down the owner’s ability to take advantage of the open Android platform is just silly.

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5 Responses to “When Open Platforms Get Closed: AT&T Cripples Backflip”

  1. Frank Earl

    @Vladamir: I dearly hope that they didn’t do that. There’s an OS core that comprises the heart of the Android “OS” (which is more of a distribution (remember that word…it’s VERY important…) than it is a whole OS by itself. This is normally just fine with the story with the other phone vendors as while it’s not required to make it easy to do- you should be able to do a reflash with your own spin of Android on the device. Motorola and AT&T, if they’ve done this, apparently didn’t learn from the PAINFUL lesson their competitor and Actiontec learned over doing this sort of thing with GPLed code. Worse, they’ve done it with a larger base of people that will be more than happy to take them down a couple of pegs for principals alone if the negotiations to fix the problem that Moto and AT&T made break down.

  2. Obvious takeaways:

    1) US residents should not buy Backflip if they care about Android. (Several good cases could be made that they should avoid Moto altogether, but that’s another post);

    2) AT&T are bound and determined to go down the same illustrious path as Studebaker and AOL. Yeah, they’ll have impressive write-ups in the history books, and you can always find groups of enthusiasts whose object of passion drops your jaw in astonishment, but as far as seriously shaping the future of the industry? They jumped that shark so fast and high that they’re on orbit — of a different planet entirely.

  3. GadgetMerc

    by default i wasn’t able to uninstall most of the T-Mobile apps either. root access fixed that, but most users don’t have root access. this really isn’t anything new.

  4. I really think AT&T does this to protect it’s own value added services and limit choice. Tethering would be a great 3rd party App that I’m sure AT&T doesn’t want anyone to easily get. AT&T Navigator is a paid subscription that they also like to keep collecting revenue from. However, since they are GSM there is always the possibility of buying unlocked devices that aren’t carrier crippled.

    I don’t think anyone would like to be forced to only buy software for their computer from the “Microsoft Store” or the “Apple Store” and I feel the same way about my mobile computer/smartphone. That’s why I only buy unlocked, unbranded smartphones.