September 18, 2014

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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