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Are You Sure You Want an Open System?

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.