Why Close an Open Platform?

When I wrote the first draft of this, I thought I was going to be writing for the Smartphones column at TechRepublic semi-regularly (once a month). As a result, I set this aside until I would decide whether to submit it to the editor for that column or publish it myself here at blogstrapping. I ended up getting doubled-up on the Programming and Development column, however -- writing two a month for that, rather than one for that and one for the Smartphones column. By then, of course, I had basically forgotten this draft existed, and it languished.

I stumbled across it again when writing Vimium and Other Chromium Extensions, and now I've decided to share.

Open source software developer Joe Hewitt comments on the nature of openness in software, in Android and Open Source. His purpose is not to say anything particularly innovative or insightful, per se, but rather to explain what he meant in some Twitter posts that he feels might have been misunderstood by readers.

The result is that he explains something that many of us who understand "open" to mean more than just "less closed than Apple" were already thinking: that Android is not really all that open, after all. Anyone who has tried executing the ls sbin command on a typical Android device knows that:

$ ls sbin
opendir failed, Permission denied

Hewitt's theory is that it is the service carriers who make a basically open foundation for an OS into an effectively closed platform. To some extent, he's right about that. The only question, really, is how much is "some extent". It is obvious that Google at least enables service carrier restrictions on the platform, of course.

For a counter example, and for a demonstration of how Hewitt's point about Google having to let the carriers impose those restrictions in order to gain some market share makes sense, look at Nokia's N900 device and its Maemo operating system. Nokia essentially told service carriers where to stick it when they demanded that Nokia let them heavily restrict the OS, and as a result the carriers told Nokia where to stick it when it came to marketing and device+service deals for customers.

It is pretty obvious what Apple gets out of its control freak behavior when it comes to the iPhone. Apple is in the business of selling image, and for that to work it has to maintain that image. Its customers are people who want that image. The same is not true of Android customers, however.

Android customers want something quite different from the iPhone. They are, to some extent, generally anti-iPhone. They want commodity software; they want flexibility; they want something free from Apple's control freak behavior. They get a little of that with Android devices but, thanks to the way service carriers try to restrict the platform, they do not get as much of it as they conceivably could.

The things that come closest to providing "image" for carriers other than AT&T, which is the only official carrier for the iPhone in the US, and for device vendors other than Apple, are hardware exclusivity and add-on software exclusivity (like Motorola's MotoBlur). These are the brand differentiation opportunities for Android. The Android platform itself, however, is necessarily the same across devices and carriers. How, exactly, does unnecessarily restricting that help them?

This is what I want to know. What is the value in imposing these restrictions on Android? The business case for some of these restrictions escapes me. I am not even talking about source code: I'm just talking about being able to do things like run the OpenSSH client from the command line without having to install a separate terminal application, for instance. We need to get past the point where we're allowed to actually manage our own devices' operating system's basic functionality before we worry about whether we can have the source code.

I wonder if, given the opportunity to speak candidly with the people who make these kinds of decisions for companies like Motorola and Verizon, I would find the answers to questions like "What's the benefit of restricting the Android platform so much?" surprising. Would they have interesting answers that I had not considered, or would they even have meaningful answers at all? I suppose if asked such questions by a journalist they would give canned answers like "security", and if speaking to MBA students they would give cockamamie answers like "vendor exclusivity", but I would like to know if they actually believe that nonsense.

If that is what they say when trying to be 100% honest, they do not have good reasons, and are not actually thinking. If there are other reasons that they do not share with the public, it would certainly be interesting to hear them.