Are You Sure You Want an Open System?

September 28th, 2010

In the latest issue of our weekly newsletter, I brought up an article from Washington Post tech columnist that pretty much sums up the serious shortcomings of the Android OS. You see, open doesn’t always translate to something that’s actually good.

Think about the issue of interface consistency. With Mac OS X and Windows, you know that the computers you buy with these operating systems have tested and proven interfaces, and the skills you master to get things done can translate from model to model. Even though Windows is available to loads of manufacturers, from the individual who assembles PCs as a hobby to large, multinational corporations, you know how things will usually work. Certainly Apple’s infamous “walled garden” provides an even greater amount of consistency and reliability, because there aren’t thousands of different models to support.

Do you remember one of the first TV ads for the iPad, in which veteran actor Peter Coyote did the voiceover? He announced that “you already know how to use it,” meaning, in part, that tens of millions of iPhone and iPod touch users have already adapted to the interface, and, besides, the iPad is easy to learn without the need of a complicated user manual, or any manual.

Yes, I know there are those power user tips that the magazines, bloggers and book authors love to write about. But the average user just wants their tech gear to work without a lot of secret handshakes. If you want to discover those secret handshakes too, fine and dandy. But they shouldn’t be required.

When you look at the Android OS, everything that’s wrong with it can be defined with those two words: “open source.” Yes, it means that neither Google nor any other company can impose limitations on what you can do with the code. But it also means that handset makers and wireless carriers are free to mess with the user interface to provide their own slant on how things should work.

As a result, the Home screen of your Android smartphone may look very different from the one on another product using the same OS. Handset makers have the freedom to add their own selection of apps to promote products and extra-cost services. They can also change core functions to work in a way that benefits their design sensibilities, profit potential, or a combination of the two.

As Rob’s article, a review of the Verizon Fascinate, points out, you can’t even depend on what the default search engine might be. To add insult to injury, a contract between Microsoft and Verizon Wireless signed last year allows them to install Bing in place of Google.

Even if you like Google’s apps and services, you cannot depend on whether any of them will be available on the Android OS smartphone you buy. Getting rid of some of the bundle apps may require hacking the device. Power users won’t care; but regular people deserve better. They surely want things to just work, and that’s something that you cannot say about Android.

What’s more, Google leaves the software update process to the carriers and manufacturers. It’s up to them to decide whether to push the latest and greatest Android OS update to your device. If they opt not to let you have it, don’t expect complaints to help. You’re forced, once again, to root your Android smartphone to allow it to receive the upgrade, with no guarantee that the process won’t somehow brick your phone, or even if the update works, provide assured functionality.

While long-time PC users may be quite accustomed to the need to occasionally customize an OS, doing that on a smartphone, meant as an appliance, is overkill. Or, in fact, a royal pain.

This doesn’t mean that Android isn’t poised to take the top spot among OS share around the world in the next few years. The proliferation of Android gadgets and special two-for-one offers from the carriers are bound to move loads of product. Having to succumb to such deals may not be terribly profitable for the handset makers, but they’ve lived for years as slaves to the carriers, and some profit is better than none.

I realize many of you prefer open to closed despite the limitations, and will continue to attack Apple for wanting end-to-end control of their products and working environments. However, it’s also fair to say the downsides of Apple’s ecosystem are few, assuming Apple has the product that meets your needs. Sure, maybe there are apps that’ll never show up in the App Store, and features you want but aren’t yet available in the iOS. Such are the compromises you have to accept in exchange for near-total consistency and dependability.

Whenever you think Apple is the villain, consider that one thing the company can’t do, and that is to force you to buy iPhones, iPods, iPads or Macs. The marketplace will decide if Apple’s walled garden is a bad idea. You do, after all, still have a choice.

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6 Responses to “Are You Sure You Want an Open System?”

  1. DaveD says:

    I don’t have a smartphone and have no thoughts, good or bad, about Android OS. What I do know is with Mac OS X. Apple have done “dumb” things. Change for the sake of looks instead of making it more usable.

    As an early example in the Mac OS X Public Beta, the Apple icon was place in the middle of the screen. The icon took up valuable space and did NOTHING. In the later OS X version, the menu bar was made translucent. For what purpose, to see what is behind an area that is only 0.5 inches down from the top. Do you remember how useless the drawer was on an ugly QuickTime player in the early Mac OS X?

    For my Finder windows, I preferred that a desired folder contents to have a certain look. Folder A would be in List View only, Folder B in Icon View only, and Folder C in Cover Flow View only. In Leopard’s single window when you go from folder a to b and back to a, what do I see in Folder A, most likely it is the Icon View. If I do it again and continue to folder c and back to folder b then back to folder a, what would I might see is probably the Cover View in folder b and a.

    Then there’s that iTunes 10. While the icon change does not bother me, the top left rearrangement of the stoplights do. I cannot believe that this change was to shave off a few pixels at the top. I wonder if Apple software engineers don’t ask themselves if this was a good change. Putting in valuable time for something “dumb.” I would prefer that the time would have been put to better use like providing me a way to get rid of PING.

    I love my Macs and I am going to buy another Mac once my piggy bank for special occasions/purchases has a lot of weight. I just wish that Apple can recognize a “dumb” idea sooner than later. Before the coding, testing, and public release would be the best time.

    I don’t want to go through another “huh?, what!, and why?”

  2. Lazer Wolfe says:

    The interface fracturing issue does seem to be an artifact of the model Google has chosen to pursue. But in the long run, I guess Google don’t care whether a carrier markets the Android name, or whether there is a unified Android UI, as long as Android use is spread far and wide. There is just this initial marketing thrust to get people to recognize Android’s purported quality and “being open”.

    However, I do wonder if Google foresaw Microsoft’s move to get Bing to replace Google search? Does the Android OS have other hooks in it that allows Google to collect user data besides the search engine?

    How else does it benefit Google to have Android used widely besides for selling Ads?

    As for the other comments that are sure to follow on the Mac UI, this is a difficult situation. On one hand, you want consistence and functionality. On the other hand, you’re going to eventually have people get bored with your UI. Everyone wants something fancy and new. How to change without changing to much?

    That being said, the new Grey Sidebar Icons in iTunes 10 immediately struck me as a step back. They looked more like something that would fit in with some lightweight Xfce theme than the Mac.

    Thanks Gene!

  3. Peter says:

    “Even if you like Google’s apps and services, you cannot depend on whether any of them will be available on the Android OS smartphone you buy.”

    Uh…I’m pretty sure you can download them and install them on your phone.

    “Getting rid of some of the bundle apps may require hacking the device.”

    And this is different from, say, the iPhone…how? I can’t seem to get rid of the “Stocks” app on my iPhone.

  4. Wayne says:

    The important take-away: Android’s customers are the vendors and carriers, while Apple’s customers are end users. You may not like what Apple does, but it is consciously targeting the person who will use the iPhone, and that’s one of the reasons they are tied to AT&T in the US: it was the only carrier that would agree to let Apple run things with a consumer mindset.

    Google doesn’t care about the end user experience, as the article points out. They want Google Everywhere (usually with their search and ads as the default), and Apple nowhere, and don’t care if you buy the latest Android slate and end up with a version that’s 3 releases behind the phone your neighbor bought six months ago.

    I almost wonder if Google knows that Android will fracture and get bogged down with crapware, etc, and basically be ruined by the carriers — as carriers have ruined phones for decades — and they are secretly waiting for the day that Android users rise up and beg for a benevolent dictator (Google) to reign things in.

  5. LAViking says:

    @Peter. I think the point isn’t that you can’t remove the Stock app. It’s that Apple won’t allow carriers like AT&T. To install their junkware on the iPhone. It’s up to the user to determine the third party apps you want installed. Not so with android where Verizon forces certain apps on the phone that the user can’t remove. now that is not what I would consider choice from a supposedly open system.

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