There's a buzz from the tech industry about the abuses of wireless carriers and Android handset manufacturers. For example, MG Siegler recently wrote in TechCrunch that "Android is as open as the clenched first I'd like to punch the carriers with." Jason Hiner also recently wrote about the threats to the ideal of Android's open platform that the carriers represent.
Generally, I agree and am bothered by this direction. Yet, I think that some of the hyperbole floating around is a little much, especially in MG Siegler's case, where he actually claims "[Android carriers want to] ...create a closed system that may leave you crying for Apple's closed system – at least theirs looks good and behaves as expected."
MG had me up until that last point, where he showed his hand. While the things going on with the Android ecosystem are troubling, it's a fatal mistake to compare the iOS devices to Android in this regard. It seems more like an attempt to justify the limitations and liabilities of buying into the iOS platform than a desire to see Android embracing open platform standards.
However, "looks good and behaves as expected" is a pretty subjective quality. I think Froyo looks awesome on my Droid 2. It's been very reliable and stable while offering many features and benefits that iOS promises in the future, but hasn't yet delivered.
If MG had stopped there, his opinion could have been salvaged – but he went on to discuss the bundled "crapware" that's showing up (and often can't be removed) on recent Android handsets. He said, "Apple would never let this fly on the iPhone, but the openness of Android means Google has basically no say in the matter." Then he lamented the rise of customized app stores. He concluded that "open is proving to mean that the carriers can choose what they want to do with Android" – as opposed to the consumers.
But the truth is that, in a side-by-side competition, the design and distribution model of Android has more inherent protections of the consumer's right to an open device than iOS. The ability to download .apk files and sideload apps are significant insurance that a carrier can only be so effective at closing down the platform to their own desire.
In the worst case, an Android-based device that's crippled enough isn't really part of the Android family of phones anymore. Instead, it's a custom, carrier-dependent phone that's built on the Android platform. It would be up to consumers to see through that charade and reject such a device – when it actually arrives.
Even so, at that point, what you would have – if sideloading and the ability to directly download and install .apk files was removed, the ability to run apps in developer mode was inactivated, and access was restricted only to a single carrier or hardware-provided app store – is a model exactly like what exists on the iOS devices today.
Of course, then you get into questions about the subjective quality – if the overall experience would be better on an Android-based closed platform phone or an iOS-based closed platform phone. I'd rather choose neither. In my opinion, only one platform already fits that description today – the iPhone.
It would be a long way to fall, and it's almost inevitable that eventually a carrier or manufacturer will attempt this with an Android-based device – that is, make an Android phone with all the draconian restrictions of Apple devices. My money is on Verizon to have the hubris to attempt this, although Motorola might be emboldened by their successes with the Android platform to either try it themselves or to be willing partners with Verizon in such a venture.
However, a good, first generation CDMA Android phone may retain or even grow value if the following generations move further away from the promise of an open platform that spearheaded the "Droid Does" campaign. There are already Android fans who would rather hang onto a first generation Droid 1, root it, and overclock it than upgrade to the Droid 2 or Droid X.
A hallmark of the Android platform is that the open nature of the system is a two-way street, one that can empower the consumer or empower the manufacturer or the carrier. With Android, I buy into a vibrant, thriving ecosystem of different manufacturers, handsets, and carriers, each in competition with one another at different levels and easily influenced by the more direct impact of market forces.
If Motorola continues to create hardware with time-bombs that can brick your phone if you root it, and sales numbers change to show that HTC (which doesn't create such hardware) is winning the battle, Motorola will most likely respond to the market backlash they experience. Similarly, if Verizon or AT&T decide to limit users to their app markets, to disable developer mode, or to load their phones with bundled bloatware – but Sprint or T-Mobile don't – consumers have the ability to reject that model. Ultimately, Android users have more choices.
In the iOS world, only one company (really, just one man) has the keys to the kingdom. If I buy into iOS, I buy into Steve Job's vision – a corporate Kim Il Jong who does not take the advice of others and allows no room for dissent – and a platform that offers no variations or alternatives. Apple, standing alone with a largely captive customer base, can afford to be slow to respond to consumer complaints and desires.
Don't get me wrong, I agree with MG's basic thesis and many of his arguments about carriers and manufacturers potentially perverting the Android concept, because I think many of them are greedy, controlling, consumer-unfriendly organizations with short-sighted business plans for extracting every last cent from their customers. But Apple is right there with their hat out, using the same tactics to benefit from the Corporate Profit Party.
What I don't understand is why MG is trying to give Apple a pass for far worse behavior and a longer tradition of behaving in such a manner, at least as far as the smartphone market is concerned. The danger of carriers abusing the open platform of Android is no excuse for Apple maintaining an iron-fisted grip on their own smartphone platform. It doesn't matter if Apple's iOS is better or worse – in either case, consumers are losing when corporations and carriers prevent people from leveraging devices to their maximum potential.
Carriers and manufacturers will continue to squeeze as hard as they can until the market pushes back. If we're not diligent about making our voices and opinions heard, they will continue to try to revert back to policies that limit our freedoms. We should always be looking for an opportunity to reward carriers that offer unlimited caps with reasonable prices and unrestricted devices. Virgin Mobile seems to be flirting with these concepts, and as long as they remain a progressive force in this market, consumers should seriously explore their alternatives.
Do not be distracted into comparing one closed, locked platform to another and deciding which one gives you the most in return for taking away your rights and over-charging you for the service. Instead, look for platforms, manufacturers, and carriers that respect you and treat you as a valued customer – not a corporate piggy bank to raid when the CEO needs to buy a new private jet or pay fines incurred for driving without a license plate.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.