Friday, May 21, 2010

The Illusion of Open

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.



47 comments:

Keith Peters said...

"Open" is the new buzzword that has come to mean whatever you want it to mean. Apple is throwing it around as much as Google or Adobe is. Well, maybe not quite as much.

But to say Android is not open because Google will not be doing direct hardware sales is grasping at straws. Sure, if you buy an locked phone, the carrier will possibly control some of the features. Just like every other phone in existence. You'll also pay a whole lot less for it. Just like the existing situation: you can get a Nexus from Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile for $179, or an unsubsidized one for $529. The average consumer is going to go for the cheaper one anyway, so it's not a huge difference for them. I highly doubt the unlocked versions will disappear completely. If so, that would be a real shame.

At any rate, saying that the iPhone is in a better situation because Apple goes toe to toe with the carriers made me laugh. Apple has locked down the iPhone more than any carrier would ever think of doing.

Rafif Yalda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jackr said...

I fear the phone experience is going the way that the (American, anyway) TV experience did, though probably much more rapidly. Once, TV was free for all, supported by commercials. Sporadically, there were talks of subscription TV ("Pay TV"), because commercials are annoying, and ultimately subscription TV ("Cable TV") became common. Ah, blessed freedom from commercials! Only, eventually, commercials dribbled into the "commercial-free" pay-TV world, and now most of us pay for our TV with a subscription, and then pay again by having to watch the commercials (or burning our eyes out not-watching them while we zip ahead to the resumption of the show), and of course then pay again, because all that air time and production cost comes out of hidden price-increases in the goods we actually buy.

Only, Google, and the carriers, and these days even the advertisers, have shown that they've learned from all that: you won't be able to zip these commericals.

Jeff LaMarche said...

Keith:

I'm not saying Android isn't open, I'm saying that as far as the user is concerned, it doesn't make any difference. It doesn't affect their experience directly, and the way it affects the experience indirectly is mostly negative right now because of the dynamic between carrier, vendor, and Google.

Or, in other words, open isn't always better.

The iPhone isn't "in a better situation" because they can go toe-to-toe. That's not what I said. I said it provides a better experience to the user, and it does, and that's what most users will care about.

But more than any carrier would think of? No. I've had Verizon phones with micro SD slots that were disabled to force to e-mail pictures (at $0.25 a pop) to get them off my phone. Apple restricts to control the user experience, Carriers do it to nickel and dime you, and will do it in any way they think they can get away with.

Keith Peters said...

"I'm not saying Android isn't open..."

But the post title is "The Illusion of Open".

"Apple restricts to control the user experience, Carriers do it to nickel and dime you, and will do it in any way they think they can get away with."

I agree on the carrier's motive. I don't think Apple is as altruistic as they claim to be. I ran out of koolaid. Apple also largely restricts to control competition and to forward the moral, political, and religious opinions of whoever is in charge. I find that more annoying than simple profit motivation.

Keith Peters said...

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

are you talking about iAds?

Sorry, cheap shot. Couldn't help myself. :)

Jeff LaMarche said...

Keith:

Apple doesn't claim to be open. Personally, I'm no fan of ads regardless of who's sending them, but it's not at all inconsistent with Apple's image or advertising.

If I can't block an add on my "open" phone, I don't consider it very open.

Jeff LaMarche said...

Keith:

The illusion is that "open" is better. The title is "The Illusion OF Open", not "Open is an Illusion". You're arguing semantics, but doing it wrong.

From the OED:

"indicating an association between two entities, typically one of belonging"

warmi said...

"The iPhone isn't "in a better situation" because they can go toe-to-toe. That's not what I said. I said it provides a better experience to the user, and it does, and that's what most users will care about."

Very much indeed.

On the other hand, it didn't really help Apple back in the late 80s/early 90s , I wonder if history will repeat itself.

Keith Peters said...

'The title is "The Illusion OF Open", not "Open is an Illusion".'

OK, but then you go on to say:

'For the vast majority of people who will buy Android phones, "open" is an illusion...'

I'm not trying to argue semantics. My takeaway on the article was that Google claims Android is open, but that's just an illusion because carriers will control it.

Tim said...

Regardless of the carrier's "lockdown", I can create an Android app and deliver it through any number of vehicles - including directly. If I want to create an app that puts horns on the President's head, I have that ability. Will anyone buy it? only the market will tell.

With Apple's model, I MUST (must, must, must) deliver ONLY through the App Store and then only after someone at Apple has decided that my work deserves to be shared with my customers. The market isn't given a chance to determine is a horned President is worth downloading.

And therein lies Google's definition of Open.

Lynn said...

I have to agree with Tim and others. I believe SJ must be regretting mentioning it on Thoughts on Flash.

What is sad is that, the draconian lock down on non xCode/Objective-C developed programs is causing many in the Revolution community to look towards developing for the many forthcoming devices that use Android.

Many in the press have pining for a HyperCard for iPad. With Revolution, it will become available - on Android. Give it a try - http://www.mirye.net/all-downloads

Nicholas said...

You're arguing that Google hasn't done enough/as much as Apple has to make the mobile field more open???

"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"

I think you just need to be reminded of the stance Google has taken for at least the last 3 years...http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2007/07/our-commitment-to-open-broadband.html.

I don't seem to recall Apple challenging the mobile industry, I know what you'll say...Apple never claimed to be open, and I'll say Google never claimed to control the major carriers, but there is quite a bit of evidence that they have fought for the consumer, every step of the way, and that's more than Apple can say!

Nicholas said...

"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." Assuming someone is left holding the title of bitch in this case, leaves only the consumer! After all, I can only see what Apple dictates I see. I can only hear what Apple dictates I hear and I can only touch what Apple dictates I touch...seems like I am the bitch and Apple's my pimp!

Truth Seeker said...

The bottom line for me is that Android really, truly is more open. Google makes the source code public. Independent developers can - and do - create their own versions of Android to be run on phones from any vendor. I offer you CyanogenMod. Where are the independent, function-richer variants of iPhone OS? There are none. The source code isn't freely available.

The Android market is more open. You can download apps of types banned from the Apple App Store - like simple WiFi detection apps. The type of apps available are not as restricted as in the Apple Store. The Android market is more open.

Android allows a user to install an app from any source, not just the Android Market. Buying apps is more open.

The Google Nexus One is a relatively expensive phone that wasn't selling as well as it might because it was online-only. Google wants to sell it via retail channels so users can have a hands-on look at it. Those phones should be unlocked. It's still Google's phone. The Google Nexus one phone is more open and isn't locked like the iPhone.

Even simple things are easier with an Android phone.

I can access data held on any network connected device. FTP sites. Windows / samba file shares. Bluetooth FTP. HTTP. Even bittorrent. Any file I download (or upload/share) is immediately available to apps on the phone. No need to filter everththing through an 'iTune' to get it on and off and use it. Android is more open where accessing data is concerned.

I can put a fresh battery in it in 30 seconds if the one I have runs low or dies. iPhone can't do that.

I can swap sdcards if I want to, giving me an effectively unlimited amount of storage for my phone, albeit in 32GB chunks I would have to pull and replace. But at least I CAN.

By every measure that matters to me, Android is is more open. Unambiguously so. Beyond debate.

Robert said...

From how I read the article, it isn't about whether Android is "truly" more open, or whether geeks/programmers can install from source, or even not so much what Google's intensions are... It seems to be the question of how it relates to the consumer, and without direct to consumer sales, much of Google's purported "openness" evaporates. Not all of it, but I see that what *really* matters, what matters to the everyday consumer, *does* evaporate, as is explained in the article - mostly because (a lot of the) control moves from Google to the carrier, which is not what any consumer wants (just ask most people how people feel about their carrier). I didn't get the impression that the article is speaking to developers and the restrictions or requirements on the Android vs iPhoneOS devices, but about the user and how the carrier vs device / OS manufacturer plays out *for the consumer*.

There isn't going to be some developer mass exodus from the iPhone due to Apple's restrictions. This "developers are going to turn their backs on Apple - and then who will get the last laugh har har har!" argument I have been seeing in some places (not necessarily in these comments, just saying in general) is ridiculous; developer's won't leave the iPhone because of Apple, they'll leave it when the market is better elsewhere. And user experience will always trump... anything else. There are reservations I have about some aspects of Apple's restrictions, but they have nothing to do with the fact that restrictions exist, just with the minutia of certain implementation aspects.

I've jailbroken my phone and even used it for a few months that way (mostly prior to the App Store), but in the end? I got bored with it.

I'd rather pay for an application (in most cases) for my phone than muck around with mostly poorly designed free ones because I don't have time to waste when I'm using the phone (not so with my computer).

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Benny said...

Robert, hit the nail on the head. I don't want an app that runs poorly or makes the user experience degrade nor does 90% of your average users. Unmonitored apps on a device with limited hardware resources makes your phone open for chaos. This is not a desktop computer.

jp said...

I think a lot of the people that care so much about "Open Systems" are geeks, developers. But in the end most of the people that buy the iPhone / iPad are non-technical people that just want to have a "good experience" when watching online videos, e-mail, surfing the net, reading books and all the things that non-technical people enjoy doing. Apple atleast is listening to their users and add as much features that they can technically can from user / developer feedback. I think that Google is trying to be the Windows of Mobile computing, clamoring "Open" at the expense of crappy, buggy "User Experience". Let's see if history repeats itself and see MS Windows crappiness on Mobile platforms the way the did on personal computing platforms.

steve@enginpost said...

This article is fantasy. Truth seeker outlined plenty of wonderful reasons why "open" matters to consumers. Let me tell you about a few more reasons why people will be considering Android over iPhone in the coming weeks:

1- Price
2- Carrier (plan cost, coverage and speed)
3- The whole darned internet

#3 is a big one. I know plenty of iPhone owners who are completely non-technical that care about "open" when it means not being able to experience all of the social-site features they want or media or online games.

It is also worth mentioning that in the realm of "open" Google will be publishing bug reports to developers via the Android Marketplace. This issue of "open" will mean a lot to consumers. They will never see it, but it will mean a lot.

Gurufaction said...

Android is Open. It's the hardware (Phone) that's closed.

George said...

"Unless Google resumes direct sale"

Last time I checked Google is still selling the Nexus One online.

Reread the posting from Google's Andy Rubin. He said that he will only stop selling the phone online after they have increased the availability of the Nexus One in retail stores.

Google did not say that they were going to stop selling the N1 or its successors. They explicitly said their goal was to increase retail availability.

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Ian said...

"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."

Even if only one Android phone in the history of the world is sold unlocked, that's still one more phone than iPhone and that little bit more open in comparison.

---

"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."

They're capable, but obviously they are not willing or AT&T wouldn't be the #1 complaint of iPhone owners.

---

"That's why we don't have the mandatory 15-second spiel before voicemail that Verizon users have to suffer through."

I honestly don't know what this refers to because I use Google Voice integration on my Android phone (which I choose to use on T-Mobile's network). I think the fact that I CAN use that integration is an extremely good example of the openness of the platform.

---

"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?"

You seem to be missing a few pieces to your logic. Naturally, Apple is a company and profits come first. Therefore, we can assume that they want an excellent user experience because that means more people will buy their devices which means more money for Apple (those Apple employees "get to come to work the next day"). Somehow you're assuming that ONLY Apple can create a good user experience. You're assuming that carriers will customize and restrict the user experience in a way that will make it worse (because that will net them more customers?). What you are neglecting in your love of Apple is the fact that the ability to customize the phone is PART OF IT BEING OPEN. Being open doesn't just mean that you can customize it or a manufacturer can customize it or that a carrier can customize it or that Google can customize it. It means that ANYONE can. Your post contradicts its own title.

---

"Google doesn't really care about the user experience..."

The exact same thing can be said about Apple.

---

"...they just want to keep making money on their proprietary, non-open advertising in the mobile space..."

The exact same thing can be said about Apple.

---

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

Thank God Apple would never do that! Oh wait....

I can walk into the store of any carrier in Seattle and see Android devices with a wide variety of hardware. That is the direct result of Android being open. It is not an illusion. It's reality.

sing said...

When you read the comments from this developer about the Android market, it's difficult to think about Android as "open"

http://breakingart.com/blog/2010/06/15/the-top-five-things-i-learnt-as-an-apple-developer-moving-to-android-development/

singbeer said...

When you read the comments from this developer about the Android market, it's difficult to think about Android as "open"

<a href="http://breakingart.com/blog/2010/06/15/the-top-five-things-i-learnt-as-an-apple-developer-moving-to-android-development/>http://breakingart.com/blog/2010/06/15/the-top-five-things-i-learnt-as-an-apple-developer-moving-to-android-development/</a>

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