Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: mobile phones

How Google plays hardball with Android

I wanted to link to this Ars Technica post on Google’s levers of control over the Android ecosystem by Ron Amadeo, mainly because it’s a really nice piece of reporting. He explains how Google has reduced the open source footprint of Android and migrated to closed source versions of many of the key applications and services that Android users expect. Google then uses bars Android handset makers from making non-approved Android devices in exchange for licensing these closed-source applications.

This answers the question of why there aren’t more Android forks floating around, and sheds an interesting light on the Kindle Fire:

This makes life extremely difficult for the only company brazen enough to sell an Android fork in the west: Amazon. Since the Kindle OS counts as an incompatible version of Android, no major OEM is allowed to produce the Kindle Fire for Amazon. So when Amazon goes shopping for a manufacturer for its next tablet, it has to immediately cross Acer, Asus, Dell, Foxconn, Fujitsu, HTC, Huawei, Kyocera, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, NEC, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, and ZTE off the list. Currently, Amazon contracts Kindle manufacturing out to Quanta Computer, a company primarily known for making laptops. Amazon probably doesn’t have many other choices.

I actually don’t think this is particularly evil, but I do think it gives lie to the claim that Android is really an open platform.

Tim Bray on eradicating the digital divide

I like this quote from Tim Bray on the proper aspirations of people working the mobile industry:

Some worry (reasonably) about everyone being online all the time. I think that regularly disconnecting from the endless input overflow is a good thing. But, that choice must always be voluntary; its imposition, by a malevolent government, a failing market, or poverty, is a bug that we should fix.

Bruce Schneier on Carrier IQ

Security expert Bruce Schneier has a nice, short post on Carrier IQ. Here’s his bottom line:

Several things matter here: 1) what data the CarrerIQ app collects on the handset, 2) what data the CarrerIQ app routinely transmits to the carriers, and 3) what data can the CarrierIQ app transmit to the carrier if asked.

I think another thing that matters is how much of the data Carrier IQ collects is already being collected through other means. Carriers already have access to any unencrypted data that is transmitted over their network.

Read the whole thing. I hesitate to comment so much because the story is changing so fast. It’s best to focus on the essentials.

Nokia falls in with Microsoft

Matt Drance bottom lines the Microsoft-Nokia “strategic partnership” with the following headline: “Microsoft Buys Nokia for $0B.”

I have absolutely no qualms about calling this new regime at Nokia a puppet government. This is far and away the most brilliant move of Ballmer’s tenure.

All the analysts are on the same page on this one — this is a huge coup for Microsoft. It’ll be interesting to see whether this deal turns out to be important in the long run. Can Nokia handsets running Windows Phone 7 carve out substantial market share somewhere between iPhone and Android? RIM seems to be having trouble, and is better positioned than Microsoft/Nokia.

Also relevant is Horace Dediu’s short history of Microsoft’s previous mobile partners.

One reason Google dropped H.264 support

Matt Drance offers one hypothesis for why Google is dropping H.264 support:

If H.264 becomes and remains the dominant codec, then Google needs to convince all of its partners to bundle H.264 decoder hardware in order to preserve a competitive video experience on Android. It cannot, however, guarantee them favorable licensing terms, because it is not a licensor in the H.264 patent pool. Android and Google could end up with a problem on their hands if OEMs hesitate or get hit with lawsuits.

Enter WebM/VP8. By overseeing both the technology and policy, Google has much more power to insulate its partners, and thus the entire Android platform, from disruptive patent or license disputes. If all goes well, it could go a step further and require Android OEMs to include VP8 decoder hardware from a (hand-picked, of course) list of vendors, guaranteeing a minimum standard of video playback on all Android devices. Google could even acquire one or more of these vendors for good measure.

Why dump H.264 entirely? Why not hedge your bets, especially if H.264 is working right now? Google says “our goal is to enable open innovation;” what it in fact means is “we prefer patents we own.”

Gauging the battle between carriers and handset makers

One of the most encouraging things about the original iPhone was that it was an Apple product, not an AT&T product. Apple maintained control over just about every aspect of the user experience, and customers relied on AT&T only for connectivity. This was great news for end users, because mobile carriers tend to do an awful job in terms of user experience. One of the reasons the iPhone was so starkly different from everything else on the market at the time was that it was so obviously free of the horrible sorts of interfaces that carriers always foist upon their customers.

I was among the many optimistic people who believed that the iPhone was the harbinger of things to come, and that soon there would be a plethora of handsets from a variety of manufacturers that, like the iPhone, reflected the design choices of the handset maker rather than the carrier. Aside from the discontinued Nexus One (which no carriers subsidized) and more recently the Nexus S (offered by T-Mobile), that hasn’t happened.

Now I’m seeing a similar prediction from Owen Thomas at VentureBeat, arguing that the Verizon picking up the iPhone in its pristine state is a sign that carriers will lose control of the handsets.

I’m not as optimistic about this as I once was. Android has not been helpful in this regard. Because of the way Android is licensed, carriers are free to manipulate it in any way that they choose before installing it on handsets, and manipulate it they do. Apple alone insists that carriers who offer its handsets do so without customizing the phone to suit their needs.

For a number of good reasons (one of which is that they won’t allow carriers to customize the iPhone software or put their logos on the hardware), iOS is unlikely to become the dominant OS in the handset market. Android is an excellent product, and Android handsets are going to be offered across the full handset price range soon enough. RIM and Microsoft aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The question then becomes, is anyone other than Apple going to stand up to the carriers and demand that they control the user experience instead of the carrier. Right now, it doesn’t seem likely.

How Android is like Windows

I’ve been saying for some time that in the smart phone market, Google is Microsoft and Apple is, well, Apple. Apple was never going to be the dominant player in this market in terms of market share, simply because they only have one or two phone models at any given time, are only on one carrier in the US, and won’t license the operating system to any other handset makers. They want to sell enough high margin products that people love to be extremely profitable, and are very successful with that strategy.

Google, on the other hand, gives Android away to anyone who wants to put it on their handset, and have been rewarded with rapid growth. But I don’t think that Android’s user experience will ever match the iPhone’s. For one thing, because Android is used on so many different kinds of hardware, it will be difficult to achieve the level of integration that Apple has with the iPhone. And for another, the carriers and handset makers are guaranteed to make the Android worse, just as the PC makers have consistently made Windows worse over the years.

This is from Eric Burke’s review of the HTC EVO:

Android makes vendor customizations possible and this phone demonstrates just how poorly that can be done.

He has a list of examples. That’s just not something you have to settle for when the iPhone is out there.

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