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.
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