March 27, 2015

Op-Ed: We Have Met Android, And It Is Us

My fellow developers, we say we want openness in mobile:

  • We want device owners to be able to download and install whatever applications they wish onto their device, without threats of punishment
  • We want developers like ourselves to be able to publish applications for devices without threat of being rejected by interfering middle-men
  • We want open firmware, so we can literally change anything we want about a device’s operation, limited solely by the hardware
  • We want an open development process and lines of communication with those responsible for creating the open mobile platform

The best commercially-viable opportunity for such openness starts soon, in the form of Android. It may not be perfectly open, but it will likely be a far cry more open than the popular options, and a far cry more popular than the perfectly open options.

However, device users don’t buy “openness” – they buy benefits that they personally realize. And to that extent, Android will succeed or fail based on our efforts as developers. If openness is Android’s strength, it is up to us to make that meaningful to ordinary people, while also giving them benefits, in the form of compelling applications, that make Android worthwhile in their minds.

Of course, it’s a double-edged sword – Android can fail courtesy of our efforts (e.g., poor application quality) or lack of efforts (e.g., everybody waiting for everybody else to move first).

Such success or failure will not happen overnight. Android is a long-term play, involving many participants and, eventually, many devices. Even if one device does not measure up, other devices will come along and perform better. Devices come and go – the platform and the applications live on.

As developers, we need to:

  • Stock the Android Market with quality applications that users value, even if those applications are merely preview betas while the Market ramps up to support purchases as well as free downloads
  • Build a vibrant community, to demonstrate to other developers that Android is both financially interesting and not technically daunting
  • Obtain and respond to user feedback, both as individuals and as a community, so we can learn from our mistakes and come up with guidelines for making successful applications (e.g., “bland” stock UI themes vs. every-app-looks-different vs. user-initiated app skins)
  • Do all of this without “waiting for Godot” — in other words, not assuming that some member of the Open Handset Alliance is going to create all this stuff for us

In physics, we talk of potential energy and kinetic energy. A rock high up on a hillside has potential energy, but that energy is meaningless until the rock starts to roll down the hill. Similarly, the openness that Android provides is a potential openness – until and unless Android is a commercial success, that openness will have little meaning in a world full of walled gardens and high castles.

In other words, Android is as open as we’re willing to make it.

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142 Comments

  1. Todd

    The above post is ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room – the carriers.

    T-Mobile has built a forked version of Android and intends to sit on top of the app store “shopping bag”. So we developers are at their mercy. I would like to through some cold water on this blog post and show you just who Android developers are dealing with:

    ——————————————–
    T-Mobile Wins Court Injunction Blocking iPhone VoIP Application
    September 15 2008

    Germany’s Higher Regional Court of Hamburg has issued a declaration which bans the use of a VoIP application on the Apple iPhone. The application, Sipgate enabled iPhone users to make VoIP calls when connected to a local Wi-Fi hotspot in Germany.

    The court case was brought by T-Mobile, which is the exclusive distributor of the iPhone in Germany.

    The court had sided with T-Mobile, which had argued that Sipgate had used unfair business practices in order to attract consumers that are otherwise locked to T-Mobile while making calls. The core of the argument was based around claims that consumers would have to “jailbreak” their phone in order to use the Sipgate application, and hence was a breach of the T-Mobile contract with their subscribers.

    The application is still being sold on Apple’s application shop, as it has not been banned for use outside the country.

    The court has however also upheld a previous ban on T-Mobile advertising the iPhone as having unlimited internet access – until it offers a VoIP service of its own.

    http://www.cellular-news.com/story/33615.php
    ——————————————–

    I won’t even pontificate what AT&T, Verizon and Sprint would do if they saw “rouge” data packets emanating from an Android phone on their network.

  2. Mark Murphy

    @Todd:

    “T-Mobile has built a forked version of Android”

    And your proof of this assertion is…what, exactly?

    “and intends to sit on top of the app store “shopping bag””

    And your proof of this assertion is…what, exactly?

    Not to say that either of those are necessarily out of the question. However, you claim them to be facts, and facts should be accompanied by evidence. The evidence you supplied (T-Mobile blocking SipGate in Germany) does not speak to either of the above-quoted points.

    If anything, your supplied evidence is a fine demonstration that, indeed, it is the developers that will determine how open Android is. Carriers will invariably have mixed emotions over “open” (more data plan sales vs. greater data network usage and potential service competitors). Sometimes they’ll be for it, sometimes they’ll be against it, and sometimes they’ll do both at the same time. The only way we get a long-term open solution is to seize a commercially viable opportunity and make it compelling, such that carriers conclude that the benefits (sales) win out. OHA can only do so much to make Android compelling — the rest is up to us.

    “I won’t even pontificate what AT&T, Verizon and Sprint would do if they saw “rouge” data packets emanating from an Android phone on their network.”

    I didn’t realize data packets had colors, but, regardless…

    Verizon would shit a brick if an Android phone were on their network, considering the near-term Android devices are likely to be GSM, and Verizon is still CDMA, IIRC. And I have no evidence that AT&T or Sprint have blocked any GSM device, usable on another carriers network, from being used on theirs, so long as it is unlocked and has the appropriate SIM card. If you have proof to the contrary, I would definitely love to see it!

    So, no, I’m not ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room — on the contrary, there is only one way past the gorilla, and that is to get the gorilla on your side, and we can’t assume somebody else is going to convince the gorilla of that on our behalf.

  3. Todd

    @Mark Myrphy

    Sir, let us both reconven here in the comment section of this post, late in the day on September 23, and I will provide you with all imperical evidence you want that T-Mobile has:

    Built a proprietary, forked version of Android that will never, EVER be available as Open Source.
    Apps that appear in their version of Android’s shopping bag will require their approval first before being made available to T-Mobile users.
    They will be sniffing for SIP packets being sent through the SIM card ( possibly over WiFi too ).
    There will be no negotiating, begging pleading or circumventing T-Mobile’s rules for developers on any of the above.

    Looking forward to seeing you here on September 23rd!

  4. Tom

    @Todd

    You are talking rubbish. T-Mobile USA is member of the OHA and so they are commited to enable users to install _whatever_ they want.

  5. Todd

    @Tom

    You too are invited to come back to this post late in the day on September 23.

    ;)

  6. Mark Murphy

    “Built a proprietary, forked version of Android that will never, EVER be available as Open Source.”

    Depending upon how you define “forked”, this wouldn’t surprise me in the least. For example, I could see them replacing the stock dialer or in-call display to be something with T-Mobile branding, and it’ll probably come with T-Mobile wallpaper initially installed, and whatnot. So long as their changes do not interfere with Android application operation, or so long as HTC supports flashing alternative firmware (akin to many of their Windows Mobile devices), or so long as there are devices from people other than T-Mobile, such a fork is not that big of a deal. In fact, the ability to create proprietary forks is precisely why Android was licensed Apache 2.0 instead of, say, GPL.

    “Apps that appear in their version of Android’s shopping bag will require their approval first before being made available to T-Mobile users.”

    That’s conceivable. The question then would be what alternatives exist for getting applications on the device.

    “They will be sniffing for SIP packets being sent through the SIM card ( possibly over WiFi too ).”

    Depends on what you mean by “sniff”. If you really mean what network engineers call “sniff”, then I’m sure they “sniff” for all sorts of packets, SIP included. If by “sniff” you mean “block”, they haven’t done that for Windows Mobile or Symbian, at least in the US, based on personal experience.

  7. lad

    this might not be the the perfekt thread to post in but it is the newest ….^^

    ok for the ones that look and appeal is a reason for or against the first android phone (htc dream)
    i might have seen the “sketches” of the phone (could not find the the post onthis site … but there are here!)
    and u have seen tha vader/blurry video of the htc dream …..
    some already speculated that… but since (in my opinion) it seems to be the real deal in the video (nothing has changed to the newest presentation )
    ok…
    have a look at the vader/blurry video at 14 sec and 20 sec … it is the moment were he opens and closes the
    keyboard …the screen part goes a little away from the bottom ….. and wenn we look at the sketches
    have a loo at the back you see a half moon shape ….

    i think this i really cool …. what do u guys think … even if u already knew

  8. Vitor Pereira

    I’m with Todd on this. And regarding the points listed on the top of the page:

    * We want device owners to be able to download and install whatever applications they wish onto their device, without threats of punishment
    * We want developers like ourselves to be able to publish applications for devices without threat of being rejected by interfering middle-men

    #1 & #2 you already have that today no need for Android. Well, maybe not in the US which is like a third world country regarding mobile communications.

    * We want open firmware, so we can literally change anything we want about a device’s operation, limited solely by the hardware

    #3 Mark my words, you will never get this, the carriers won’t give it to you.

    * We want an open development process and lines of communication with those responsible for creating the open mobile platform

    Todd, meet you here on the 23rd. :-)

  9. Mark Murphy

    @Mr. Pereira

    “#1 & #2 you already have that today no need for Android.”

    Not on all platforms. Notably, the iPhone fails on those counts.

    “#3 Mark my words, you will never get this, the carriers won’t give it to you.”

    You assume the carriers get a vote. For example, various HTC devices have been reflashed with modified Windows Mobile environments, and the carriers didn’t get a say in the matter. And even if HTC does not allow reflashing, for whatever reason, if Android is released in toto as open source, there is little stopping other firms from stepping up to the plate and making a device that actually does allow it.

    Moreover, if you take the time to read what I wrote, you will notice I said “we say we want openness in mobile” as the lead-in to those items. This is what we *want*. The only way we’re going to get what we want is to start with an open-as-possible platform, then use it as a wedge to pry matters further open. The only way for *that* to be practical is if developers make Android interesting enough to be a serious player in the marketplace — if we leave it up to OHA (in particular, its carrier members), it might not get there.

    You and Todd may feel that this challenge is too great, and that the carriers will win, and Android developers are doomed, and we should all just sit around gnashing our teeth. That’s fine; you are welcome to your opinions. And if you have a better strategy for achieving greater openness in the mobile ecosystem, I’m all ears.

  10. Todd

    @Mark Murphy

    “..You and Todd may feel that this challenge is too great, and that the carriers will win, and Android developers are doomed, and we should all just sit around gnashing our teeth.”

    I am super negative about T-Mobile forked version of Android, yes, but not the pure Android platform – I love it. No teeth gnashing here.

    I see nothing but great things for the platform ( TV set top boxes, netbooks, MIDs, PMPs on and on ) and have every confidence Android development work THAT DOESN’T INVOLVE MOBILE PHONE CARRIERS will be extremely successful.

    Call me “negative Nelly” only in the context of carriers selling Android powered phones. Corruption at the highest levels of management, greed, lack of any moral compass that involves the Great Good, and a loooooooooong history of total incompetence where software development is concerned, are what I use to formulate my pessimistic view about Android on T-Mobile.

  11. Shane Isbell

    T-Mobile has already published the rules for provisioning applications into their portal. So no, you can’t stock any application you want. As for the store-front, T-Mobile has taken the stance that you can build your own store-front application (android or any other mobile content) but that they won’t allow this application into their portal. If that is not a controlled store-front, I don’t know what it.

    But let me say this, T-Mobile is the most open of US carriers and that I believe that Android will be more open that other platforms, but my feeling is that both Google and T-Mobile want to control the store-front space and they aren’t going to make it easy for third-parties. I’ve had a lot of personal frustration in the this area, with the building up of slideme. This doesn’t affect every application, however.

    Shane

  12. Shane Isbell

    @Todd

    I guess I can comment on this since I was in the room when the decisions at T-Mobile were made not to open up the applications to small developers. In my opinion, it wasn’t greed or corruption but rather arrogance from a couple of individuals who never laid a line of code in their life. Why should they deal with the small guys, when they had so many big ones beating at their door?

  13. Mark Murphy

    @Todd:

    “I see nothing but great things for the platform ( TV set top boxes, netbooks, MIDs, PMPs on and on ) and have every confidence Android development work THAT DOESN’T INVOLVE MOBILE PHONE CARRIERS will be extremely successful.”

    Cool!

    We’re probably closer to agreement, then, than I thought we were from your initial comment. I agree that carriers will be a tough nut to crack and may well not get cracked on the first swing of the hammer.

    The point that I keep trying to emphasize is that, if we’re *ever* going to crack that nut, it’s going to require a popular more-open-than-average platform as the base. Android can be that platform, but only if there’s a first-class ecosystem behind it and enough users to make it interesting, and we developers are as responsible as anyone for making all that a reality. And, it may be that the ecosystem and user base starts with non-phone devices, or devices not provided by carriers — who knows?

    Case in point: Shane’s comment regarding third-party app markets. He’s may well be correct, but only for the case of carrier-sold devices, possibly even for the subset of carrier-subsidized devices. But, if we can make Linux netbooks that cost 200-400 USD, *somebody* should be able to make a useful inexpensive GSM phone, based on virgin Android, accessing the raw Android App market. Plop your SIM in, and you’re good to go, and the T-Mobile portal and whatnot won’t mean one whit.

    T-Mobile could then try to up the ante and start trying to restrict the devices on its network. I have no idea how practical this is, and I have no idea if it would withstand a restraint-of-trade lawsuit. But, I’d rather cross that bridge when I trip over it.

    In the interim, the best thing we can do, and possibly the *only* thing we can do, is build the first-class ecosystem.

  14. Todd

    @Mark Murphy reference Shane Isbell comments

    Ha! I was right on everything – No need to wait until the 23rd.

    Never to be one to gloat, I will just take my “win” and encourage you to abandon all Android development for carrier issued Android handsets. In fact I encourage all of us to abandon developemnt for T-Mobile Android phones. They want to “take their ball and go home” – let them.

    I expect all the other carriers to follow T-Mobile’s lead and create poisoned, forked versions of Android ( Showing they cannot learn from their mistakes ).

    There are many, many profitable areas of Android development out there, excluding the hacked up monstrosities the carriers will try to push on people.

    Glad this issue is settled. Off to post this news on http://www.propublica.org :)

  15. Vitor Pereira

    @Mark – What’s that with the Mr. Pereira thing? Any reason to treat me differently from other readers, or are you just new around here?

    You assume the carriers get a vote.

    Well yeah, who do you think is going to subsidize the handsets?

    if you take the time to read what I wrote, you will notice I said “we say we want openness in mobile”

    That’s nice, I though you were supposed to attract and retain readers, guess you do it in a different way. Guess what? You’re readership has just gone down.

    I did read and I said ‘if that’s what you want, no need to wait’. Maybe, you should take the time to read from the start.

    I don’t feel that this challenge is too great like you said, on the contrary it’s not that much of a challenge. And who said anything developers being doomed, are you some kind of conspiracy nut? All I’m saying is this effort is not directed at giving you a ‘greater openness in the mobile ecosystem’.

  16. Felix H. Cat

    Yes Todd. You were right on everything. It’s obvious, Todd, because there is enough evidence to support your argument *rollseyes*

  17. Todd

    @Felix

    Dude, what more do you want than this statement from a T-Mobile Android developer?

    “They won’t allow this application into their portal. If that is not a controlled store-front, I don’t know what it…[ it was the ] arrogance from a couple of individuals who never laid a line of code in their life. Why should they deal with the small guys, when they had so many big ones beating at their door?”

  18. Shane Isbell

    Just to clarify, I left T-Mobile four ago and the event I’m talking about is from 2002. From my understanding, there have been a lot of changes internally and T-Mobile is trying to address the developer community (they just opened up a developer portal last month). Personally, I didn’t get a response to a simple question on their forum, so they have some more work to do. I never went back to the site. I couldn’t have been the only one.

    What I have seen from Google hasn’t been as open as I expected; I still hold a lot of skepticism after that whole thing with the SDK (are they going to do it again?). As critical as I am, I haven’t abandoned Android (I updated the Masa plugins for Android recently and we are still continuing work at SlideME). It’s just I’m not willing to go through sleepless nights. I don’t have the burning passion for a platform that I’m uncertain about. I need to see an open-platform on a device. Saying “trust us” just doesn’t do it after all the other crap Google pulled. At least for me, they have to prove it before I’m going to make those sacrifices again.

  19. Tony S.

    I don’t know what’s with this negativeness with the carriers.
    We have the living proof that the carriers don’t have all the aces to play in this game with the iPhone.
    Apple’s Store is managed by Apple, not by any carrier. And that T-Mobile case is another proof.

    I’m with Mark here and I strongly believe that if after T-Mobile comes another little carrier wanting to catch some new customers, will talk to HTC/Samsung/LG and bring an “untouched” Android.
    That’s a natural competition between the carriers.

    I hope that from the very beginning there won’t be any necessity for that competition to bring everyone the openness that Android and Google are starting.

  20. Shane Isbell

    @ Tony

    “I don’t know what’s with this negativeness with the carriers”

    Let me see: Brew, Verizon blocking JADs, carrier signed certs to open up the device to an application, complete disregard for the individual developer and small ISV…If there wasn’t such negativity toward the carrier policies, then there would be no excitement for Android, which promises to change them. And so far no small carrier has challenged a national carrier by opening up their device (they don’t need Android for that). Natural competition hasn’t worked there.

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