Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When closed is better than open

The iPhone and Android are fighting for smartphone leadership with many similar strategies: touch screens, a good browser, an app store with thousands of apps.

Overall, however, Android is seen as more open. This is normally assumed to be a good thing, but two recent incidents suggest such openness has some disadvantages.

One of the long-remarked differences is that that Apple is selective (some say arbitrary) about which apps it allows in the Apps Store, whereas Google is pretty laissez-faire about what it allows in Android Market. But — as in many things involved complex technical or business systems — it’s not that simple.

Finally Google realized that some people were abusing its app store and decided to throw some out. AppBrain reported Monday that one app developer alone had 4,000 apps deleted from Android Market. On Wednesday, AndroidGuys reported that one of impacted developers vowed to be back, using multiple fake logon accounts. (H/T: Phandroid).

Why would one firm publish 4,000 apps? Reportedly the developer said:

We didn't want to have to do that. But the Android Market doesn't have many people who like to pay for apps. So how is a developer to live? Just off of ad revenue?
This is interesting on so many levels. Ad-supported free software works great for Google and is the norm on the Internet, but (if this claim can be believed) isn’t working so well for app developers.

As in desktop and server Linux, apparently Android users expect free beer. Excessive openness by Android — like free access to open SMTP relays — makes it possible for “spammers” to both gain access and work around limitations in a way that a physical market would not allow.

In telling the smartphone app story, we think about positive externalities: more apps brings more users brings more apps. We don’t think about negative externalities (like traffic jams or overcrowding): more users brings more abusive app vendors brings lower average app quality.

Finally, this problem raises the question of what the count of Google apps means if so many of them are bogus. If a real live human being is screening each app, then both the count and the quality are meaningful.

I figure Google will solve this eventually, probably with an algorithm. The algorithm will count the number of apps, the rate of app submission, the similarity of apps, perhaps their complexity. Just like the credit card companies, this will trigger an exception report that has to be monitored by a real live human being.

The one that seems more troubling — and harder to fix — is the openness to customization by manufacturers that preload craplets on the phone. Wired lists examples of Samsung (with a T-Mobile phone) and HTC (with the Sprint Evo). The HTC rep was blunt:
“It’s different from phone to phone and operator to operator,” says Keith Nowak, spokesman for HTC. “But in general, the apps are put there to meet the operator’s business and revenue needs.”
What’s particularly annoying to users is that this bloatware cannot be removed by users. To me, this is inconceivable: I can delete apps from my Mac and every Palm OS phone I’ve ever owned.

Alas, this is inherent in the Android business model. The iPhone put Apple in the driver’s seat with carriers, but it was a temporary aberration. The whole point of Android was to commoditize smartphone software, and with it reduce barriers to entry (and thus prices) for smartphones. Commodity phones are the dream of Vodafone and the rest of the world’s carriers, restoring (in their minds) them back to their rightful dominance in dictating to vendors and users alike.

Big bad Apple controls what apps are allowed in its app store. Big bad Apple tells operators what apps it will provide pre-installed. So the iPhone is less open, but (at least as long as Steve Jobs is there) that proprietary control is used to provide a better user experience.

1 comment:

Tony Payne said...

Android Marketplace is not as open as many people believe. Marketplace limits downloads to Android phones that meet a set specification criteria. As of May 2010 only 18 devices met this criteria. Excluding many. Google is open enough to allow alternative App Shops that are increasingly gaining market share by specializing in supporting Apps for tablets and non touch screen devices that are powered by Android. Its an interesting corner of this new growing market. I am pretty sure that App shop specialization in categories, such as Apps for small businesses, will develop.