The Problem Of "Open"

Few folks seem to remember that it was a just a few years ago that a consortium of handset manufacturers got together to form the Open Handset Alliance, an effort to create an open, free platform. This effort would eventually become Android and, back in 2007 when the OHA began, the platform’s success was far from secure.

Between 2001 and 2007, phone manufacturers had a problem. They had very few options when it came to operating systems and Windows Mobile and Symbian were in the catbird seat when it came to popular smartphones. Palm OS was still kicking during that period but if you wanted “smartphone” or, more precisely, “PDA phone” features you went with one of those two platforms.

Unbeknownst to many, however, was a small, strange group of users who used Linux on their PDAs and phones on a daily basis. I remember, for example, plopping Qt on my Compaq Ipaq 3650 back in 2002 and Rockbox on my Archos Jukebox (and my original iPod). These were homegrown projects created by enthusiasts inside and outside of the high tech industry to took the mission and modus of GNU hackers to new platforms. The resulting products, while acceptable, were far from mainstream.

The OHA saw what was possible – many participants were intimately familiar with platform hacking – and they were surprisingly prescient. The OHA members formed their alliance on November 7, 2007 at MWC and during this period many of the major players were seeing sales of their “feature” phones shrink quite drastically as users began to understand and use the mobile web and request more PDA-like features and, propelled by the rise of RIM, always-on email. Witness devices like the Samsung Blackjack to see where that led – odd amalgam phones that sold for a few hundred dollars, some aimed squarely at the “mom on the go” market (a marketer’s description, not mine) that once accepted the flip phone as a height of technology. In short, people who weren’t normally looking at smartphones were starting to request them and, to the carriers’ credit, they got them in the form of highly polished and marketed “blockbuster” releases like the Droid and the ill-fated Xoom.

The OHA, then, was supposed to give carriers the opportunity to create handsets outside of the status quo. By creating and sharing an “open” OS, they could save money, pump out customized phones with PDA features for underserved markets, and control almost everything about the UI, the installed apps, and offer the geeks some of the things they wanted like a command line and SSH sessions. It’s easy to forget that it was the geeks, not the non-techies, that loved the OHA simply because it combined Linux and cellphones.

Fast forward to today. The OHA has been all but forgotten and when you think Android you think Google. This would be akin to someone like Yahoo! taking over development of Linux and telling Linus Torvalds to stuff it. Google calls the shots, runs the patch process, and handles support. The handset manufacturers wouldn’t want it any other way. After all, who wants a wonky version of Android on a mass-market phone? Not any sane person.

So this is open on Google’s terms. As Andy Rubin wrote:

As always, device makers are free to modify Android to customize any range of features for Android devices. This enables device makers to support the unique and differentiating functionality of their products. If someone wishes to market a device as Android-compatible or include Google applications on the device, we do require the device to conform with some basic compatibility requirements.

That sure sounds like the old Henry Ford line: “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black” and it sounds very similar to what any sane mobile OS maker would say: “You are free to develop and use this stuff all you want, but if you think you’re going to make any money you’d best get with the program.”

To be completely fair there is a vibrant Android development community but their efforts are often met with bit-checking and firmware reversals when “hackers” try to install their own versions of Android. If Android was “big O” Open, as prosthelytized by Richard Stallman, none of this would be an issue. But no carrier wants a rogue phone on their network and Android, like the island in The Prisoner, is fun and cool but you’re not leaving Google’s cage without a fight.

Arguing Android’s openness is like arguing when Nirvana “sold out.” For those who thought they were cool back in the 1980s, doing videos on MTV and hijacking youth culture is pretty egregious. And for those used to downloading a tarball of community code, compiling it, and slapping it on a bare metal system, the OHA sold out when they called for open and really gave us “free.”

Update: Scott here, adding a little more about the value of open. I think a lot of people — and business executives — build up a lot of angst about the “threats” that openness presents to a company’s success, and their bottom line in particular. After all, if Joe Hacker can take all your work and rebrand it and release it himself, what’s stopping him from stealing all or even just some of your marketshare?

But there’s a compelling counterargument to this. Just look at Red Hat. They pay people to contribute to free software that gets used in lots of non-Red Hat releases. There’s even a whole distribution that literally copies all of Red Hat’s work and is available for free. And yet, businesses continue to purchase Red Hat software, which ain’t cheap.

I’m a big believer in the Four Freedoms, especially Freedom Zero, as advocated by the Free Software Foundation. Red Hat, and other open source companies, prove that it’s possible to succeed in business and still honor the four freedoms to your customers. The mobile space needn’t be any different.

Still looking for Android tablets? Check out Matt’s post here on the cheapest Android notebooks.