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 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:
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.