Linus Torvalds on carriers
November 9th, 2012 by ravi

Linus Torvalds, originator of GNU/Linux, does not like an Engagdet editorial about the “race to the bottom” in mobile phones. What’s wrong with a race to the bottom that commoditises the technology and lowers prices, he wonders. But what really irks him about Engadget’s piece is that they seem to be missing the forest for the trees:

But when it comes to cellphones, it’s not just a flawed argument, it’s doubly stupid. Because in that market, particularly in the US, the alternative is the whole broken carrier subsidy model, with all that entails. None of which is good, and all of which is much worse than any (hypothetical) “race to the bottom” arguments.

And at no point did that deeply flawed editorial even mention carrier lock-in issues. What crock.

As someone who is concerned with identifying the real problem, I expected Linus would notice the word that is significant and common to both issues (subsidy model and lock-in) is “carrier”. That was not to be. Instead Linus moves on to his preference for the “unskinned” Android experience. And fortunately for him, an unlocked Nexus phone (which seems to sell for about $400, though I cannot be sure: there are so many similarly named devices, and one called Nexus 4 that is not even on sale yet) gives him the trifecta: he gets the unskinned experience, freedom from carrier lock-in, and his $400 (or whatever he paid) frees him from the carrier subsidy model.

I like the Nexus phones just because I think they have a nicer interface.

But I like the Nexus phones even more because they are clearly pushing the whole “no carrier lock-in” model. And price is absolutely part of it.

While Linus does not explain how “price is absolutely part of it”, the real leap is the claim that an Android phone, unlocked or not, is the answer to carrier induced pain. I need not point out what Google did with the first Nexus device it sold. The history runs deeper. Android exists successfully today for one reason: it enabled carriers to continue their regressive practices (of which lock-in and price subsidy are only two, and the latter, the subsidy, is a mild in comparison to the rest). And it did so at a crucial moment when the iPhone was finally breaking users free from the clutches of telcos. It would not be a stretch to further argue that this function of Android is a conscious strategic choice made by Google.

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