Androidal Drongolianism

Yea, so ok… Google have just launched their new Android phone, and everyone’s got an opinion.

Everyone except me. I don’t even have a cellphone. What do I know? (I’m not a late adopter… I had a cellphone back in the 80s. This is my mate Adi talking on it back in about 1990. See? That’s real. That’s reality the way it used to be)

Actually I have two cellphones – one for international, one for NZ… but I never use either of them. I don’t even charge them up. I hardly ever use a landline either. So what do I know? Here’s an advert:

And another thing about Google talk. Which looks quite useful:

If you use phones, but I don’t, so I probably wouldn’t find it that useful. It looks useful though.

vague thoughts:

Thought #1:

There seems to be a lot of talk about “Android” vs “iPhone” – which is a fair enough. I make that comparison myself… but as someone pointed out over here, that is not the real picture. This is the real picture:

Android isn’t competing with iPhone’s 1%, it’s competing with everyone else’s 99%.

Thought #2:

LOL. Have you seen this? It’s a thing about how Android will fit into “The Enterprise Environment“…

… and is basically an accidental treatise not on how Android won’t (or will) fit with Enterprise Culture, but on how Enterprise Culture won’t fit in with the 21st Century. Private Tyrannies that have crystalised out of an economic system that is failing… and the knots of legalese are becoming more and more constricting. It’s like they’re trying to maintain this vice-like grip over their inner-environments… not realising that increasingly, unstoppably… there is no difference between the inner and the outer environment any more. Borders are becoming ever more porous, irrelevant, and counter-productive.

Thought #3:

Ok – back to iPhone vs Android again, even though I said it was irrelevant in Thought #1.

Open vs closed… iPhone is closed, Android is open… and here is the fundamental reason why iPhone is destined to become “The Apple of iPhones”: It’s to do with killer apps.

There’s really only one killer app… when you get down to it, all killer apps (apart from fire and spears) are variations of The One Killer App. And that is…

… “Whatever Allows The Fastest Memetic Propagation”.

That’s it. That’s what it’s all about – every major Web 2.0 site has this at it’s core, the rise of the CD, the rise of PHP, the English Bible… all of it all comes back to this simple advantage. This can be rephrased as “Whatever is best at getting around obstacles”. And in the wonderful world of the 21st Century, the main obstacles we face are legal… to do with IP laws from the last century.

Android phones have a major advantage over iPhones in that Google doesn’t attempt to take control (and therefore responsibility) for the root… so people aren’t choked by IP law.

Breaking the law is a major killer-app – because the law is wrong. This ACTA bullshit that’s coming down the tubes… and all these pathetic 3-strikes manoeuvres are in essence, an attempt to turn the entire world into a set of private tyrannies. The same machinery (funnily enough) needed for a state tyranny.

Thought #4:

So get an Android-powered phone. Vote Open-Source, every single time.

6 Comments » for Androidal Drongolianism
  1. (Note: what follows here is a bit of a rant. In your blog comments. Sorry about that. I hope you find it engaging. Also, as a caveat: let it be known I am a great supporter of open source software. I’ve written quite a good deal of it myself: However, the (widespread) idea that open source is going to be some kind of panacea for mobile phones has been itching at me lately with all the Android hype an this post seems to have knocked loose the reasons. Hope you don’t mind too badly.)

    The reason operating systems are the killer app for the open source approach is because they have to solve a really hard problem that can only be solved via distribution of commercial interest: getting one gigantically complex piece of software to run on an infinite variety of hardware. It’s impossible for any one entity to solve this problem alone. If you try you get the slowly rotting corpse of Windows. Linux is where everyone who’s not an operating system vendor comes together to get their shit to be able to interoperate. It’s a DMZ.

    And, it turned out in the early 90s, that running on a multitude of different hardware was the killer app for OSes because doing so meant that the hardware became a commodity and therefore cheap and you ended up owning the entire market, which consisted nearly entirely of people who didn’t give a shit about computers and just wanted to get something done (whether that be email their grandkids or run their accounts).

    However, when it comes to phones, the variety of hardware is a much bigger problem that it was for PCs. That’s because, unlike PCs, the differences in phone hardware directly impact end-user capabilities and user interface affordances. What set of radios (3G, Edge, Bluetooth, wifi, etc), what sensors (accelerometer, compass, capacitive touch, why not a barometer and an altimeter?) , and what form factor a phone determine the features of the phone and hence user purchasing decisions. Hence, hardware and its affordances are the main axis of competition for handset manufacturers.

    And what makes one piece of hardware better than another when it comes to phones? The answer is surprising: what kind of apps can be created with it. It turns out that phones are platforms for app ecosystems. That is their primary purpose. Granted, you couldn’t ship one that didn’t have voice and text messaging. But everything else is apps built on top of the hardware affordances.

    So, what does this mean for the Linux-style run-on-all-hardware open source OS story? It means death. Good apps come from good, simple, easy-to-get-started-with SDKs. And those come from having a clean consistent abstraction above a dependable unchanging set of hardware capabilities. Joe Q. Programmer who has the idea for the next killer casual game or fart app is going to build for the platform that has the lowest cost of development per paying user. That means all of the tiny slices represented by those fringe handsets that Android runs on are irrelevant. Their audience is too small. Even collectively. And they’re too much of a pain in the ass to develop for. Some of those phones don’t have the cat hair detector that is absolutely vital for this game!

    That’s why you’ve seen pretty much every Android phone turn out to be an iPhone clone. In addition to using the Logic of Knockoffs to appeal to consumers, they’re also trying to draw in app authors who’ve only had the iPhone to look at and think about and scheme over for the last year+.

    And then, unavoidably, there’s the app store. With the possible exception of AT&T, this is the piece of the iPhone ecosystem that gets the most complaint from people who want open source to win the mobile space for ideological reasons. Oh, the approval process! Oh, the app censorship! Oh, the glut of similar apps!

    But, there’s this: the App Store makes app developers money. A lot of it. And it does it by making it stupid simple for them to get their apps to users. And stupid simple for users to give them money. More than that, though, Apple created a culture of paying for apps. I don’t think people have remarked strongly enough on that achievement. In a decade when most consumer intellectual property-based industries (music, movies, books, newspapers) collapsed into sticky goo under the pressure of network culture’s emphasis on free, Apple created a new ecosystem where paying for the delivery of intellectual property is a norm that people happily obey. Is there even a black market for apps? What would that even look like?

    To some extent, Apple was able to do that because unlike Linux with it’s philosophy of free and Windows with its philosophy of cheap, they already had a pre-existing culture of brilliant closed-source developers who made beautiful programs that improved their users’ lives and charged money for them. From Panic to Delicious Monster to a dozen others. Apple brought this culture to the phone.

    And having a way for developers to get rich by making beautiful apps for the single greatest number of users using the simplest and most consistent SDK is simply an unbeatable combination. Unless you can compete with them by being wildly better on one of those axes or doing something so different that it would seem crazy if we thought of it now, Apple’s app (and hence phone) dominance is not going anywhere for awhile. Don’t get me wrong, Google and partners will be able to chip away at it by simply copying what Apple does and doing it 3/4ths as well. But they won’t really be able to move the ball and will simply be following Apple’s lead for the foreseeable future.

    This is an especially depressing development to see from Google from whom everyone so palpably expects some kind of Jack Move: a free ad-supported phone, or an alternative, wifi-based calling system, or something. Some idea besides just an Apple knockoff. We’ve already have a company that spends their time doing 3/4ths as good Apple products. We don’t need another Window’s Mobile. And that, I’m afraid, is what Google’s giving us.

  2. Eric Mill says:

    The fragmented-hardware problem has been a huge straw man for people to criticize about Android since day 1, and it hasn’t gone away. I understand why, in theory, having all these different handsets around makes for an impossible future. But in practice, it isn’t a barrier. I’ve made 4 Android apps now for the Market, and it’s just not something I have to worry about. Most Android handsets have the same core hardware features (accelerometer, GPS, touch screen) – and the differences between them (physical/virtual keyboard, screen size and density) are mainly resolved for you with the framework.

    I’m not saying there are *no* problems with it. I see apps updating with bugfixes for problems on specific models of phones. But it’s like developing for the web with browsers. Most browsers are 98% the same, and then the extra 2% can suck, depending on how complicated what you’re doing is, and how big you are.

    When I publish an app, my user base isn’t some specific slice of Android phones; it’s all of them. So as Android grows and will within a few years almost inevitably have the largest user base on earth when you combine all those devices, that’s going to have an impact. As fragmentation of handsets grows, and you start seeing a minority of devices that *really* differ, like lacking an accelerometer, then all of a sudden my user base for my floor-sweeping-simulator app is 90% of the huge base of Android users. Oh well, that’s still going to pretty awesome.

    We’re probably going to just have to agree to disagree about the App Store. While in a sense I respect Apple for creating a value opportunity for folks, and spurring innovation, I’d much rather see a mobile Internet that resembles the real Internet, where people can just post whatever they want, and ask for money however they want. The real Internet doesn’t seem to be lacking in people innovating and making cool tools for people.

    I have an iPhone app up now as well, a dirt simple one for IsItChristmas, which I also made for Android, and the developing/publishing experience was starkly different between them., The App Store rejected it at first for minimal user functionality – and this is for a free app. Their rules don’t distinguish between paid and free. I wrote an appeal, and some individual decided to champion my app and resurrect it from the dead, and it got posted on December 23, almost 3 weeks after submitting it. My Android app was available 5 seconds after I hit Publish.

  3. admin says:

    Hello – thanks for your response etc – most appreciated.


    1) Yes, there is something to be said for uniformity of platform. This is why Facebook has about 200 million accounts. It’s what Microsoft “did for the world” – provide a uniform universal interface, not just for the desktop, but for every application.

    2) Ever tried programming for WAP? It was a joke. There’s this great big XML file detailing the differences in handset specs, that stretches from here to the moon.

    3) Were you trying to say that iPhone’s more or less uniform hardware environment is a justification for closed-source software? I don’t get that.

    4) The fact that there is (or will be) probably a whole ecosystem of non-iPhone hardware out there plays to open-source strengths… open-source is about niche-interests. It’s what open-source is good at.

    This in turn will create the need for a software layer that makes these different platforms uniform… similarly perhaps to what jQuery has done for Javascript.

    5) The app store is set up so developers can make money, however:

    a) it enforces the “Work once, get paid forever” model.

    Now, I’m not an economist, or a Jazz-Purist – but my hunch is that this model is… if not unsustainable, certainly seriously flawed in a number of respects – one being that I suspect it creates a type of class-system, another of which is that it is mutually-exclusive with the open-nature of the web, which is A Good Thing.

    b) As far as I can see, there are 3 (or 4) motivational drivers for writing software… the two of interest being Money, and Reputational Capital. This why Creative Commons licensing has the “Commercial / Attribution” caveats. In my experience, software driven by the desire for Reputational Capital (ie: peer-review) is a LOT better written than software driven by market concerns.

    c) The advantage that software driven by Reputational Capital has over the “work once, get paid forever” model, is that the latter is an ecosystem of micro-monopolies… which means that if someone wants to build upon your work (as you have doubtless done) then they have to clear it with you. This is a real problem… this is the reason that HTML 5 is being held up – legal hassles over ownership of video codecs. This is what creates massive barriers to entry in Pharma/Biotech etc etc. It is a really serious problem. As I said in the original post, the killer-app in open-systems is it allows people legally or not) to get around this.

    The fact that Apple have created a money-making platform that enforces a certain sort of model… may or may not be a good thing – I can think of pros and cons. For me though, ownership of the root is everything. If someone else owns the root of your machine, then really you’re just renting it.

    6) re: the unbeatable combination of $ and easy SDK:

    A (and in my opinion THE) driver behind all killer-apps is “whatever allows the fastest memetic propagation”. Uniformity of environment certainly helps with this… and money really, really helps as well… but the “work once, get paid forever” model chokes innovation of subsequent generations of work.

    7) “Oh, the approval process! Oh, the app censorship!”

    These are legitimate concerns. By trivialising them you’re giving the impression that you can’t address them. As I said, you don’t own your phone, you’re renting it.

    8) As to the future etc… let’s see what happens.

    I wouldn’t put my money on open-source, but I would (and am) put my reputational capital on it.

    (On writing all this I see that I could have simplified it quite a lot… but visitors have come, so that will need to wait for another day)

  4. Instead of responding point-by-point to these let me summarize what I’m trying to say in two points:

    1) It bums me out that Google is going the Microsoft route of doing just like Apple only slightly cheaper, crappier, and for more people. I think the realities of the cellular business really limit open source’s ability to empower people as it currently stands. Google is in a position to really change things up. It has a record of doing so. And yet it’s choosing to make this super conservative play. No innovation, just make the business a commodity. That feels like a lost opportunity for all of us to me.

    2) In the last six months I shifted from working on the web to working on hardware. And from working in a business context to an art/design one. That has given me a new appreciation for the different cultures that exist around network culture and object culture. Especially when it comes to the exchange of money for things of value. The web is the greatest thing ever for sharing ideas. It makes documenting your work and thinking processes deeply rewarding because of the conversations and collaborations that result. That’s the heart of why the web makes open source feel like such a miracle. Code is thought that does work and so for code, the web is magic. However business on the web is another story altogether. The web makes business utterly anonymous. Your customers become flows, clicks, and eyeballs that you funnel into payment systems. When you hear from them individually it’s usually because they are angry at you for one reason or another. People feel an enormous sense of entitlement and have no sense that there are real people on the other end of the services they use. The word “service” is telling I think. On the web, makers get treated like waiters — barely noticed as human, demeaned, ignored at best. Bruce Sterling got at some of this stuff recently as part of his end-of-year seminar on

    With physical things, there’s simply a different relationship. Whether it comes from their former scarcity, their relationship to our actual bodies, or the fact that we usually have to exchange them in person, I couldn’t say, but we engage with physical things completely differently. On the web, any attempt to create scarcity feels like bullshit, artificial. But in the physical world, we imagine scarcity even where it doesn’t exist. This iPhone becomes my iPhone (the only one with the bit of grit trapped under the screen just there) and hence unique.

    Anyway, this is all to say that I think the App Store has managed to create some sense of this feeling of aura around apps that usually only adheres to physical objects. They feel like they have value. And that’s why it appeals to creators and it makes me willing (nay, happy) to give them my money.

    I think that’s quite an achievement and I think that one of the dangers of Google’s commoditization approach is that it will turn phone apps into the web and destroy this form of value. And I realize that web people will say that that sense of scarcity is “artificial” and that if it was “set free” to be the “open web” that would be more “natural” or whatever, but working with physical stuff has given me a sense of what has been lost beneath that grinding steamroller of web inevitability. And hence an appreciation for the value created in resisting it.

    The web may allow the fastest meme propagation, but there’s more to life than that. Otherwise, you’re just building a golden idol in the shape of 4chan.

  5. Also, Eric, about the fragmented handset problem: I wish that problem was worse! I wish Google was creating a zillion phones with different form factors and different sensor sets so that programming for Android would become a bloody nightmare from all the different possibilities. Maybe they’d be able to pull it off and the abstraction would hold. Maybe (as I guess) it would fall apart and become Windows Mobile.

    My main interest in phones has to do with them as physical sensor and actuator platforms. Tiny web browsers with SMS capability is a snooze. I want a “phone” that will tell me all the plant and animal species in my 10 foot radius and that will be the brain for my hovering remote presence platform like Nick keeps talking about and all that.

    The iPhone was the first really big step in that direction. Android could set loose a swarm of devices all over that territory. But I’m starting to loose faith that it’s going to do that. The first generation of Android phones is starting to look like a replay of the PC industry where since about 1984, the main dynamic has been that Apple introduces hardware features and then, slowly, everyone else adds them while driving the price down. (Caveat: I’m talking about user-facing features that allow new interface affordances, not raw power stuff here.)

    I’m starting to lose my hope that Google is going to break that emerging pattern. They don’t actually seem to care about the phone hardware except as a strategic play. Hence all the “partnerships”.

    And without that, trading Apple’s design excellence and tendency to add hardware affordances for a monolithic operating system built by basically one company in conversation with the same old handset vendors and network operators seems like a bum deal to me, lacking the excitement I usually associate with open source as well as that of Apple or Google’s innovation.

  6. Eric Mill says:

    You know Greg, I really think you ought to spend a few months with an Android phone (for all I know you might have, I guess, but it really doesn’t sound like it). The smartphone world isn’t this simple place where everyone just does what Apple does, only more slowly and not as well, and Apple is the only one out there innovating.

    Do you know what it’s like to have a phone where apps can swap in as parts of other apps, and send data to each other in an easily understandable manner (both to the user and the developers)? There’s a great QRcode scanner called Barcode Scanner, that also can generate barcodes. And any other app can send it data. So, install it, and in the phone’s main contacts app, now every contact can get turned into a QRcode. Someone solved the problem, and now no one else has to. That sort of paradigm, on Android, is more well-executed than on any desktop system, or on the Internet as a whole.

    There’s competition on aesthetics, too. Apple has something to be scared of. A lot of people talk about how the aesthetics and design of the iPhone are just obviously still better than anything else out there; they’re not. Android 2.1, with the screen, speed, and effects it has on the Nexus One, is prettier and smoother than any iPhone I’ve ever seen. Or perhaps a little more accurately, it’s to the point where only subjectivity is at play. The iPhone is not at all “obviously” or “objectively” better designed than Nexus One, or Android 2.X in general.

    I sort of get what you’re saying about making the mobile phone app situation be more like the world of physical objects, where things still have value, and people really “appreciate” things like they don’t on the web. But the web and desktops tried that, and failed — and we’re all better off for it. Basic utilities should be free. On Windows, Linux, and Android – they are. Even on Windows, I don’t have to worry about buying the Nero CD Burning Suite – I can just download one of many free simple CD burning apps.

    But on Macs, and the iPhone, there’s no guarantee. My friend was over the other day for me to teach her HTML, and she has a Mac. I went around to try to help her find a good editor to do HTML stuff in, and all I could find, and all any of her *Mac-using* friends could recommend her, was a program that cost $60. You know which program I’m talking about.

    I’m not saying that all software of value needs to be free. But environments where there are no obvious free alternatives to basic needs are extremely unhealthy. That’s what the iPhone store is like, where so few things are free. On Android, people make money, but there is simply a higher bar. That’s a better bar, and one that strikes a good balance between entitlement of users and rewards for developers.