Google fans fail to contemplate why Android is free
October 26th, 2009
Daniel Eran Dilger
Supporters of Google’s Android platform studiously ignore all its potential problems. Now they’re refusing to acknowledge why it is free. This is a bad omen for anyone who hopes that Android has a future.
Humans are wired to ignore flaws in things they love. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t ever settle down and sprout kids. But refusing to acknowledge show-stopping problems is also the basis of dysfunctional abusive relationships and codependency.
It’s time for Android followers to weigh their giddy anticipation that 2010 will be the “Year of Android” against the reality that Android isn’t exactly the bee’s knees in terms of technology, in implementation, nor as a business model.
Listening to your critics
Symbian executive director Lee Williams is clearly not in love with Android. But he recently voiced some criticisms that should be taken seriously. Symbian recently converted itself from a commercial smartphone licensing company into an open source foundation through the actions of Nokia, much the same way as Google has funded the operations of the Mozilla Foundation in order to produce Firefox.
Nokia, the world’s largest phone maker, along with Samsung and the beleaguered Sony Ericsson are all pushing new Symbian phones, and Symbian itself is working to recruit other partners to use its platform. This makes Symbian a lot like Android, apart from a few differences:
1. Symbian has a vast installed base and currently has about a 50% share of the smartphone market. Android has a negligible installed base and very little market share (around 2%). Instead, it has monstrously large yet vaporous expectations set for it real soon now, just like Itanium, Java on the desktop, microkernels, and Sirius XM all once had. (That was a callback to my previous, unrelated article for you regular readers).
2. Symbian has actually operated on a large variety of popular phones for nearly a decade. Android was announced around the same time as the iPhone, shipped its 1.0 and store about a year after Apple, and currently appears on a very small number of phones, although its fans are all anticipating a major reversal of fortune largely because they think this would be awesome.
3. Symbian is being pushed by big vendors: Nokia (which I’ll again note to be the largest phone maker in the world) and Samsung (the number two phone maker) and Sony Ericsson (which, while ailing, is still the fifth largest phone maker). The other two of the top five phone makers also make Symbian phones, although third place LG is currently being paid to direct all attention toward its new partnership with Windows Mobile and fourth place Motorola has announced the intention to back Android exclusively as its smartphone platform.
Android is being pushed by HTC, the company that made most of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile phones as an ODM for other companies, including Palm. HTC has seen the writing on the wall for WiMo and has decided that Android is its best opportunity to replace WiMo. Motorola is also a vocal Android partner, but is also about as beleaguered and rudderless as Sony Ericsson.
Android fans like to talk about the “18 mobile makers” that will be officially supporting the platform by the year’s end, but they don’t point out what a mixed bag these are. The majority of this number are little Chinese outfits you’ve likely never heard of before: TechFaith, Hauwei, General Mobile, and Highscreen, along with non-phone device makers like Dell’s netbook, Barnes & Nobles’s Nook (Kindle alternative), and the Archos internet tablet.
The platform also includes major companies that actually make phones among its supporters, including Lenovo (IBM’s former PC business), LG and Samsung. But recall that LG and Samsung share the same history as Sony Ericsson: Symbian players who were caught off guard by the iPhone, licensed WiMo in desperate attempts to poop out something that could compete, and then after that strategy failed, went scrambling back to Symbian.
Last year, Sony Ericsson introduced its WiMo-based XPERIA X1 and Samsung unveiled the WiMo Omnia. This year, both dumped WiMo from their flagship offerings; Sony Ericsson debuted the Symbian Idou while Samsung touted its new Symbian OmniaHD. LG is a bit behind on the curve, so it’s still in the process of releasing a flurry of phone models anchored to the lead balloon that is WiMo 6.5.
4. Symbian is being run like Mozilla. While it got its initial funding from Nokia, Symbian takes direction from members of its board, which includes various hardware makers. Google develops the Android platform itself to serve its own needs first, although it allows members of the Open Handset Alliance to do whatever they want in hardware and modify Android pretty much anyway they like.
Talk to an Android fan, and they’ll describe this backwards: that Symbian is a wholly-owned extension of Nokia while Google just wants Android to be whatever manufacturers want it to be. This is an important distinction because what Symbian has become is exactly what Android backers say they want: an open, independent software platform that altruistically does whatever is in the best interests of its partners. Android is actually something very different.
Lunch isn’t free
There are two kinds of freetards: cheapskates and ideologues. Cheapskate freetards love Linux and Ogg and because they don’t have to pay some outfit for the use of proprietary technology. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but these people tend to go overboard in making excuses for the lapses in quality. It’s fine to say you’d prefer to add your own elbow grease to save money in a DIY project, but if you’re not honest about the amount of work involved, you may end up putting more effort in than makes sense. Lunch isn’t free.
The ideologue freetards aren’t just interested in saving money, they’re interested in killing proprietary development entirely for political reasons. They want one choice, because they feel that some choices are not okay. They want to decree in law that lunch is and can only be free. The problem is that lunch is never free.
If you go to a conference and they offer free lunch, it isn’t really a free lunch, it’s there as a way to keep you from leaving the event to find your own food. If you get a two for one coupon offering a free lunch, it’s not a free lunch, it’s a plea to get you to buy at least one lunch at half price in the hope that you’ll like it and keep eating at that place. If your friends offer free pizza and beer for helping them move, it’s not a free lunch, but rather a cost-effective alternative to hiring professional movers. There is never a free lunch, ever.
In the world of software, fake free lunch has similar analogs. Microsoft offers its Direct Push as a “free” feature for Exchange Server because it doesn’t want users to go looking for paid alternatives in the form of RIM BlackBerry Enterprise Server, and then end up buying BlackBerry phones instead of Windows Mobile phones, or other phones licensing Exchange ActiveSync, like the iPhone. It’s not a free lunch, even if the deal may be in the interests of both users and Microsoft. And of course at some point Microsoft will start charging licensing fees for Direct Push, just like some conferences charge for lunch when they know you no longer have any options. Future costs are something to evaluate when eating a free lunch.
There are plenty of two for one deals in the software business too: Office, Creative Suite, iLife and other suite bundles all provide an assortment of very popular apps with some other placeholders thrown in to keep you from looking at alternatives. “Advertising-supported” is another example of free being non-free; your attention span has value, so having to sit through ads is a cost you incur for gobbling down this kind of free lunch.
A lot of open source software is also free in the sense of “free snacks when you help us move.” Like other kinds of fake free lunch, there’s nothing wrong with making this kind of deal, as long as you are not oblivious of what you are actually trading in order to get something that represents itself as free when it really is not. Killing yourself all day to earn a $4 lunch is not a good deal unless it comes with a pretty solid friendship and the knowledge that you have pals that will help you move someday, too.
Blind to Android’s costs
The people contributing to and willing to invest in Android similarly need to appraise the real costs involved. From the beginning, Google portrayed itself as being an altruistic friend to freetards of all stripes. It provides access to online apps that are “free as in ad supported,” and in the last couple years it has floated Android as a free alternative to Windows Mobile.
Given the universal lack of love for Microsoft’s terrible mobile operating system, this made Android a hero spanning hardware makers and potential device buyers. Add in the ideologue freetards who hate the iPhone and its App Store for being commercial ventures, and you have even more support from disgruntled developers who failed to cash in on the App Store gold rush
But Android isn’t being given away just because Google is the opposite of evil. Instead, credulity in Google’s “do no evil” creed has been strained to the point of shattering. Remember when Google was the alternative to the “in your face” advertising being shamelessly disgorged by Microsoft and Yahoo and Doubleclick, companies who all wanted to track you with spyware cookies, build up a database of your preferences and buying habits, and subsequently target you relentlessly with customized ads?
Back then, Google was all about dialing things back to subtle, textual ads that were relevant because of context: ads in your Google search results linked to sites you may want to check out. Then came ads in Gmail that pertained to the topics mentioned in your messages. A little creepy, but only on the level of those electronic eyes that know when to flush your toilet. It’s not like they’re filming you as you do your business and then predicting when you might want to pay for toilet paper.
Well that era is over. Google now owns the “we never said we weren’t evil” DoubleClick, and the company is working very hard to set up a Minority Report style dystopia where ads track you and your every move around the web. The reason for Android’s existence isn’t just to kill Windows Mobile so that Google can continue to subtly place ads next to your map search results, but rather because Google wants to extend its cookie monster domination over the mobile web, too.
While cookies in desktop web browsers offer an intimate look at what you’re interested in, what you buy online, and how long your attention span lasts as you jump between pages, imagine the rich font of personal information tied up in your mobile. That’s a major aspect of the cost of Android as your free lunch. Google is an adware vendor. You may decide that this is an acceptable tradeoff, but you can only do that if you actually stop and weigh the costs yourself. It’s completely delusional to blindly buy into Android as the free lunch with no strings.
Kill the messenger
And yet, when this Symbian executive pointed out that Google’s Android is not just another adware experiment but actually an attempt by Google to syphon customers and their valuable data away from hardware makers and mobile phone operators, Androids fans lined up to ignore the meat of his beef and instead quibbled about his probable bias.
Obviously, Symbian would rather have Google contributing to its own existing platform than introducing a new competitor. But that doesn’t make the issue he raises wrong or irrelevant to the hardware makers and mobile operators that will have to back Android for it become successful.
If this all seems familiar, it’s because Android fans have nearly unanimously taken the same approach to debating the issues that I’ve been among the first to raise, including Android’s serious platform fragmentation problems related to the hardware grab bag and the custom user interfaces being designed by Android licensees desperate to fit in while standing out. This is the Linux Problem: freedom expanded to an ideological infinite that simply results in anarchy.
For what its worth, Android’s fragmentation problems are just as bad or worse on Symbian and Windows Mobile, something that the Symbian executive didn’t get into for obvious reasons. Steve Ballmer likes to point out that Microsoft has already worked on this issue, but again has little to say about the fact that phone vendors are all abandoning his platform en masse apart from the hoodwinked (for now) LG.
The simple reality is that everything has pros and cons. For users who only consider the upside because they’ve been blinded by adoration, the downsides may be earth shattering. Android enthusiasts, many of whom are not even actual users but are simply cheering it on with the expectation that it will soon be ready for prime time on a good handset at some point (or will at least provide Apple with some much needed competition to keep it innovating), seem to prefer to dismiss any criticism directed at it without any sort of rational discussion of the actual pros and cons.
That’s a dangerous sign that associates Android with a series of high profile failures that all happened for many of the same reasons: unbridled optimism that blinded observers from seeing problems before they grew to the point of being unaddressable. Again, I can repeat that list of things like Itanium, Java on the desktop, microkernels, and Sirius XM. Real costs and drawbacks were ignored because the idealized potential of all those things seemed so breathtaking… but only when the real costs and drawbacks were ignored.
Android’s Kiss of Death
On the other hand, successful new products are often roundly criticized even as they excel. Take the iPhone: critics went full hog in exaggerating every flaw and limitation while Apple plugged away at addressing the issues. Conversely, its very unique features and capabilities were often discounted. This baptism by fire that resulted in the platform becoming unassailably powerful. Android is getting the opposite treatment: nothing but flattery and excuses. This is not exactly resulting in a strong platform.
Look who railed against the iPhone in scathing tones at its introduction: John “pull the plug on the iPhone” Dvorak, Paul Thurrott, Rob “the iPhone could be more of a drag on earnings than a help” Enderle, Wired Magazine, CNET/ZDNet, IDG, Gartner, ABI Research, Troy Wolverton, the Street, Brian Lam of Gizmodo, Engadget, the Register UK, and oh so many others.
Secret iPhone Details Lost in a Sea of Hype and Hate
The Street’s Flaccid Campaign Against the iPhone
Troy Wolverton Digs Up Rob Enderle In Desperate Apple Attack
Japanese “hate” for iPhone all a big mistake
IDG’s Galen Gruman throws fit about Apple’s iPhone 3.1 Exchange fix
Those same sources have not leveled similar criticism upon Android, which has accomplished much less over the same time period. Instead, they’ve all heaped hugely hyped helpings of praise and ecstatic optimism on Android across the board. These are people and publications that are almost always wrong when trying to predict the future. This is not a good sign for Android regardless of its cost.