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Editorial: Android's hollow revolution and hope for 2012

updated 08:45 pm EST, Sat December 31, 2011

Android needs to live up to its ambitions

There's a moment at the end of the movie 1900 (one of Robert De Niro's great early roles) where the peasants think they've finally won the revolution as Italy's fascists are overthrown. We're free, our harsh rulers are dead or gone! Then, however, the "revolutionary committee" comes and says they must give up their guns. After they do, they realize that they have just as little power as they did before; they just handed the power to another master, and now they don't have the righteous energy to fight back.

That's Android.

Google, and many of those who take its claims at face value, will insist that Android is a true revolution. You control your phone, not like that evil company Apple which tells you what apps you're allowed to run or how your interface is supposed to look. At I/O 2010, Google even tried to very publicly frame the argument this way: it cast Steve Jobs as Big Brother and suggested that Google will lead the entire industry out of an Orwellian nightmare that will surely exist if Apple 'wins' and Android isn't around to show a better path.

But that's not how it works in practice. Phone designer customization is great for variety, but more often than not, it's used to violate the very openness principles Google touts so often. While a few companies like HTC have offered an olive branch to modification, most Android phones are very deliberately closed off. The platform is defined by locked bootloaders, non-removable apps, disabled features, and of course massively delayed upgrades. You still have more freedoms than an iOS user, but it's telling that much of the talk from users at Android-focused forums revolves around how to root the OS to get the control Motorola or Samsung won't let them have.



And for all of Google's public declarations of openness, it's been well established that the company very willingly closes off Android whenever it likes. It only selectively offers source code and denied Android 3 source code entirely, waiting until 4.0 to come back. Certain parts of the OS are still off-limits to developers, and unlike a typical open-source project, you can't just contribute code back. There's something telling when a VisionMobile study calls Android the least open of all proclaimed open-source projects. More often it's Google, not you, that tells you how your OS will work, even in ideal cases.

Just as important, if not more, is that carriers are given a free rein that they almost uniformly use to take away that freedom. They're almost always the ones who prevent you from removing a music service you'll never use, prevent you from using the built-in hotspot support, or install Carrier IQ, as mild a privacy threat as it now poses. It's telling that Verizon has locked the Droid RAZR's bootloader and that even the normally all-stock Galaxy Nexus, when on that same carrier, has its share of mandatory but unwanted apps.

What Android ends 2011 with, then, is a revolution with little meaning. It's hollow. Samsung controls your phone, and the carrier controls your phone some more, while you have the least control of all. When we pick up an iPhone 4S, we paradoxically feel like we have more control over it. It might not let us install a replacement for the music player app, but because we don't have third-party apps or interfaces forced on the iPhone, it feels like our phone -- not one on loan from AT&T or Bell.

Don't look to Google for direct help, either. Mobile VP Andy Rubin has refused to step in and considers the control that carriers and hardware partners have to be a positive, not the liability that on-the-ground phone and tablet owners see. Not surprisingly, he has every incentive to limit how much control you get: Google makes a lot of its Android income from ad revenue splits with carriers and other partners, so it's in the company's vested interest to let networks dictate what you're allowed to do.



So, what are we to do in 2012? While it may be difficult to have Google mend its ways regarding open-sourced code, the short answer is to vote with your dollars. Buy a Galaxy Nexus; if you're American and don't like Verizon's limits, buy the HSPA+ version unlocked from an importer. Tell hardware builders and carriers that it's your phone and that you don't want them foisting software on your device that you can't disable or take off. Going unlocked costs more, but it may be the only way to shake the overdependence on years-long contracts and closed phones.

To some extent, that's already happening. The Nexus phones were once ultra-niche devices bought only by tech news writers and the very technically savvy. This year, the Verizon launch actually triggered lineups, something that hasn't happened for any US Android phone since 2010. In our dreams, the Galaxy Nexus fosters enough sales that companies like HTC or LG decide to make at least one completely stock Android phone a year.

We likewise need to drop the illusion that iPhone owners are living under an oppressive yoke. They may let Apple control app policies, which can at times feel arbitrary, but they also don't let carriers and third-party software developers run roughshod over their devices. Giving Apple that sway over the experience is a choice iPhone owners have made and often accept, or even enjoy.

In the meantime, Android fans need to accept that the revolution hasn't really happened yet. As De Niro says at the end of 1900, "the padrone lives:" you just chose a different master to control your fate. If you're happy with a non-stock Android phone, it just means you're comfortable with the limitations or know how to get around them. Until Android is a truly and consistently open platform for actual users, not just corporations, the revolt only exists as a dream. [Toy soldier image via Dyzplastic]


-- Jon Fingas




By Electronista Staff
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Comments

  1. thnikkaman

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Feb 2011

    +52

    This.

    This is what so many fandroids fail to realize about their phones. Apple doesn't allow carriers to put bloatware on their devices, and doesn't allow the carrier logos either. Google gives you freedom, but then the carriers and manufacturers take it away, pretty much making the experience like a watered-down, inferior iOS wannabe. If this is the case, then why do so many people fail to realize the truth about the so-called "openness" of Android?

    Inb4 DerekMorr/Wrenchy/Arne arrive to barf their bullshit all over this article.

  1. ZinkDifferent

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Jan 2005

    +37

    Thumbs up ....

    .... Thnikkaman! Well said (especially about wrenchy / symbolsv/ et al)

  1. Bobfozz

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Jul 2008

    +30

    Needed to be said

    Thank you. We "suspect" the openness freakazoids know this, but are in actual denial. Don't forget, they LOVE c***! Look at their computers and you will see tons of garbage on it. If this is "open" I don't need it. Years ago when I bought a Gateway system for my only Windows machine I told the salesman, "I do not want any junk apps on my machine. Got that?" He said he did. When I got the machine it must've have 5 Gb of c*** on it! It's not called crapware for nothing.

  1. chas_m

    Joined:

    +32

    Nicely put

    And as a film buff I love the "1900" analogy; too true.

    The bottom line is that Google's "customer" with Android is the CARRIERS.
    Apple's customer has always been, for better or worse, THE END USER.

    If I have to choose between these two over which one rules the world, I know which one I'm going with ...

  1. DerekMorr

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Mar 2010

    +9

    eh, not quite

    The author is both right and wrong. He's right that carriers have too much control. He's wrong about most everything else.

    The locked boot-loader issue can easily be avoided. Many Samsung phones are unlocked, such as the Droid Charge and Galaxy S II. HTC has followed through with their promise to unlock devices. All Nexus phones can be unlocked. Some Motorola devices (such as the Xoom) can be unlocked. I'm not sure which Android forums the author frequents, but the bulk of the discussion isn't actually about how to unlock bootloaders and root devices. There's certainly some of that on a few forums, but it's simply false to portray is as dominating the Android conversation.

    As for the usual smears about Android not really being open, this is at least the third time I've made this point on this site in as many days. Android is published under an OSI-approved license. Its source repository is publicly available. The bug tracker is publicly available. The SDK, documentation, and emulator are public. The very fact that third-party ROMs like Cyanogen and MIUI exist is proof that Android is open.

    I'm curious -- what parts of Android are "off-limits" to developers? The only things that come to mind are proprietary baseband image or other drivers, neither of which are really part of AOSP. Is the author referring to the Google branded apps (Gmail, Market, YouTube, Maps, etc). These aren't part of the Android OS either (they're just apps that run on the Android OS).

    The author is wrong when he says that "you can't just contribute code back" to Android. The patch submission process is documented here: http://source.android.com/source/submit-patches.html. See also here: http://source.android.com/source/roles.html. Quoting from the latter link:

    Contributor
    A "Contributor" is anyone making contributions to the AOSP source code, including both employees of Google or other companies, as well as external developers who are contributing to Android on their own behalf. There is no distinction between Contributors who are employed by Google, and those who are not: all engineers use the same tools (git, repo, and gerrit), follow the same code review process, and are subject to the same requirements on code style and so on.

    Examples of third party contributors include the Linaro project and ARM Inc. See this blog post, discussing ARM improvements to Android's Javascript engine, for example: http://blogs.arm.com/software-enablement/456-googles-v8-on-arm-five-times-better/. Quoting from that post:

    At the end of 2010, Google introduced a new technology to V8, called Crankshaft. It consists of a fast and simple compiler, combined with a slower, profile-guided optimizing compiler. We have contributed a number of patches that helped to complete support for Crankshaft on ARM....

    In addition to contributing code directly to the AOSP, developers can contribute to the upstream projects that are used by Android, such as WebKit, v8, libz, libpng, libjpeg, bluez, etc. This is part of the work that Linaro does.

    Yes, bloatware is a problem. But there are options -- buy a Nexus device. And, please, let's drop the hollow attempt to classify Verizon's account management and contact sync apps are bloatware. They're not.

    Regarding an Android phone not feeling like the user's phone, this is again false. Some users like OEM skins, some don't (personally, I don't). Regardless, it's very easy to install a third-party launcher, such as ADW Launcher EX, Go Launcher, Launcher Pro, etc. In addition, users can install replacement keyboards, such as SwiftKey or Swype. There are also custom widget packs (Beautiful Widgets, Fancy Widgets, HD Widgets, etc), browsers (Dolphin, Firefox), calendar, dialers, music players, voice synthesis, camera apps, and voice recognition systems. None of these require unlocking the bootloader or rooting the phone. On the contrary, the necessary APIs have been part of Android for quite a while. It's this customizability and extensibility that appeals to many.

    If you don't like the default keyboard, install SwiftKey. If you don't like the default voice synthesis, install SVOX Classic (the US Grace voice works well). If you don't like the homescreen, install ADW Launcher EX. If you don't like the default voice actions, install Vlingo. Don't like the default gallery? Install QuickPic. I don't know any Android users who think their phone experience is "on loan from AT&T or Bell."

    Ultimately, this article argues in circles. It admits that Android is more flexible and more open than iOS. No, Android isn't perfect. No one claimed it was. And if you prefer to use iOS, that's fine. But quite a few folks prefer something other than iOS. Speaking for myself, I used an iPhone for about three years. Then I got an Android phone, and it quickly grew on me. I like that I can make it /my/ phone. Sure, there are quirks here and there that bug me, but that's been true of every smartphone I've owned for the past decade (a mix of Windows Mobile, Palm OS, iOS, and Android). The difference is that with Android, I can go much further to fixing those quirks.

    Now, yes, there's certainly more work to do. But to portray the major progress that Android has made as a hollow, illusory revolution is simply to ignore the facts.

  1. thnikkaman

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Feb 2011

    +14

    Derek

    My apologies for grouping you with Wrenchy and Arne... you made a pretty constructive argument there. I can't say I agree with all of it, but at least you're trying to play nice. I take back what I said in my first comment. You are a constructive critic, the other two are flat-out trolls.

    By the way, I am going to upgrade tomorrow... I've given the Galaxy S II a look and it's nice-looking, but I'd rather Samsung be their own brand instead of so badly ripping off iOS with TouchWiz. As someone who has been loyal to Apple since the 1980s, I just can't like what Samsung is doing. Can't say they didn't try, though. I'll most likely be getting the 4S. Believe me when I say I have considered going Android a couple of times, but the minuses for me outweigh the pluses.

  1. ASathin8R

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Oct 2010

    +24

    Android is...

    ...more 'open' than 'closed.' But the article points out very clearly that this has, in the end, resulted in a fairly pedestrian experience for most users - bloatware, malware, Google-centric services, covert tracking, spyware (i.e. CarrierIQ), fragmentation, adware, woeful post-sales software updates etc are SERIOUS shortcomings that will continue to mar the platform indefinitely (as good as Ice Cream Sandwich may be).

    For 'power users' Android may well be the OS of choice for a smartphone, but for everyone else, the iPhone and iTunes combination easily trumps Android. Android will thrive, just as Windows did, not because it is better, not because it is open, but because carriers love it and it will be available on the cheapest, and crappiest handsets that you can imagine (along with the good).

  1. mkral

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: Nov 2000

    +8

    Negative votes for Derek?

    Really? We may prefer iPhones (I sure do) but nothing in his post was inflammatory, negative towards apple, condescending or out of line. We may not agree with him, but certainly his post deserved an up vote, or at the minimum no vote at all. Derek, I gave you an up vote for taking the time to lay out a solid counter argument.

  1. SockRolid

    Forum Regular

    Joined: Jan 2010

    +14

    Live by the carriers, die by the carriers

    Most of Android's success is due to cell carrier marketing. The carriers like Android only because they can throw out Google's code and replace it with their own (e.g. Verizon tossing Android Market for V CAST and making Bing the default search engine.)

    But cell carriers don't care about pad computing. At all. Because there's no money in it for them. Consumers don't need a big-minute voice plan to use an iPad. And with wi-fi, consumers don't need an expensive (and possibly capped) data plan either. So, the cell carriers don't bother promoting Android pads heavily.

    But even with the carriers' marketing help, there's only one path to success in the pad market. And the steps along that path are, in order:

    1. Create a robust ecosystem and infrastructure.
    2. Make a great pad OS.
    3. Make great pad hardware.

    Apple has been there, done that, got the t-shirt. But Google and their hardware partners are doing these three things in the wrong order. Hardware is easy. Just Google "cheap Chinese tablets" and see for yourself. The OS is vastly harder. Android still hasn't caught up to iOS in the pad space, and it may never. Why not? Because of step 1. Infrastructure.

    Amazon has had a robust infrastructure for years now. That's step 1, and it took Apple and Amazon a decade to build out. As for step 2, Amazon modified an older version of Android to suit their own needs, replacing Google's "profit layer" with their own. And now they're selling low-end hardware at a loss. That's step 3 as a work in progress. And with the Kindle Fire's popularity, there may never be a need for any other version of Android in the pad space other than Amazon's proprietary, closed fork of Android 2.3.

    2012 will be the do-or-die year for Android in the pad space. So far only Amazon is doing it. All the rest are dying. And Amazon has a lock on the low end. Good luck trying to find a niche between Amazon and Apple there. Especially if Apple does what they've done with iPhone: sell last year's model for less.

  1. Kees

    Junior Member

    Joined: Sep 2001

    +24

    unoriginal

    to me, more than anything, Google just needs to put some original ideas in their phone OS.
    The reason iOS works so well is because of the level of control Apple keeps over the look and feel of the whole experience.
    Once you give that away for the sake of openness, maybe the whole approach to tying everything together should be different.
    I haven't actually used the new Windows Phone, so I don't have an opinion about it, but I've seen more original ideas in a couple of screenshots than anything I've seen on an Android phone.
    If they just keep copying what Apple is doing, it's going to remain the "me too" device it is now.
    Or maybe they'll start borrowing from MS now, are there any board of directors seats opening up in Redmond?

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