Open vs Free, the Android vs iPhone edition
April 2nd, 2012 by ravi

Over on GigaOm, Tom Krazit spins an old argument as a new one by characterising as silly the many recent blog posts on how little money Google makes on Android, in fact much lesser than what it makes on iOS (I have made such posts myself). Look beyond the dollars, he says, as if that’s a fresh and non-obvious point:

Not all investments are made with the expectation that a big payoff is around the corner. Google’s decision to bankroll the development of Android was just such an investment, which makes the past week’s back and forth over just how much money Google has garnered from that investment quite silly.


The mistake is assuming that Google views this as a big problem, as if Android has been a waste of money because Google makes more money from its competitor. Would Google like to make more revenue from Android? Sure. Money is nice. But Android was a defensive move on Google’s part, and one that wasn’t primarily motivated by desire for revenue or profit.

The mistake in Krazit’s own thesis is that he sees discussion of Google’s revenue as an independent and sole criticism of what Google is doing with Android. That is not the case. The fact that Google does not derive profit from Android but gives it away for free to handset makers and telcos (not users, less than 2% of whom can upgrade to the latest version of Android released many months ago) is part of a larger argument or analysis of the nature of Android vs iOS. Since Krazit wants to rehash these points as if new, I will repeat my criticism which is a bit different from that of famous iOS defenders like John Gruber.

Krazit rests his “pooh-pooh the money, Android is worth it” case on a set of points:

  • Competition to iOS is inherently valuable (I am guessing this is based on the standard competition is good mantra), and Android is the only competition to iOS, without which Apple would dominate the landscape.
  • Apple keeps “tight-fisted control” over its platform denying the “shell-shocked smartphone industry” any means to exercise their own control. The “potential upside” of Android as an alternative to Apple’s tight-fisted control is that with Android Google could compete for mobile searches.
  • Android will “ensure that the world will have access to a modern mobile operating system governed by different principles than Apple’s”.

Together these arguments address and conflate two issues: what is good for Google and what is good for the world.

The examination of what is good for Google is indeed appropriate when discussing, in isolation, Google’s piddling current earnings on Android. Google has taken the “long view”, argues Krazit, to ensure their ability to dominate the space of serving advertising to users. This should comfort Google shareholders perturbed by the current financial unviability of Android as a product, and this line is fine as far as it goes in arguing against making much of Android revenues (though it is perfectly legitimate to argue if this strategy, as explicated by Krazit, is the best one that Google could choose from).

However, making much of Android revenues is only part of a bigger argument of what it is that Google is doing. As some have put it, the user is not Google’s customer, but really is Google’s product (the real customer of course is advertisers). What this formulation addresses is that second issue: what is good for the world?

Krazit himself is clear about what is good for the world about the iPhone over Android:

There’s no doubt that Android can frustrate those who want the best experience they can get in mobile computing. While it has gotten a lot better, it still seems like it was designed by robots rather than humans,…

But note how he hedges what is bad about Android:

… its wholesale embrace of wireless carriers — the favored punching bag of the modern mobile consumer — puts it in an awkward position among those who might ordinarily be sympathetic to its goals.

Krazit makes it sound as if the embrace of wireless carriers was incidental to Android’s success and that wireless carriers are undeserving of the anger of mobile consumers. The opposite is true on both counts. First, what consumers chafe under is not Apple’s “tight-fisted control” but that of wireless carriers who limit the things users can do with their devices. Second, without a wholesale embrace of wireless carriers by giving them a free platform to fight against Apple, Google would have made little progress and achieved little of that role as significant iOS alternative that Krazit touts and values.

What we are left with is Krazit’s appeal to the value of competition and the idea of an alternative mobile platform that is “governed by different principles than Apple’s”.

Competition is productive only when it occurs on and for the same ground or criteria: in particular the value added for the consumer. That’s the criteria employed by Apple. And that, the user experience, is the primary focus of Apple. However, even with Krazit’s argument, it is unclear how Google enabling the wireless carriers (the “punching bags” of consumers) can stay clear of conflict with the needs of users, making Android at best a close runner-up to iOS. That’s hardly competition, as extolled in textbook capitalism!

So much for competition.

Dressing this contest up as a matter of principles — Android’s openness vs Apple’s “tight-fisted control” — adds a philosophical veneer that merely recalls Stallman’s warning about Free vs Open, and “free as in freedom” vs “free as in beer”. Android is “free as in beer” (an aside: why should a beer maker not get paid?). Its “openness” might even empower developers (though that is fast becoming  a dubious claim), but as Stallman argues, it is the freedom of the users that matters. Krazit makes light of the reality of user pain caused by wireless carriers, calling carriers the “favorite punching bag” (as if they are merely receiving blows without delivering them), but by doing so he grudgingly acknowledges or points at where user unfreedom really stems from. It is the wireless carriers who exercise “tight-fisted control” over users. Enabling them to do so, exactly at a moment when users were finally breaking free of it, is not an incidental matter, but is at the heart of the question of principles that seem to worry Krazit so.

On the matter of principles, Apple’s seem clear: they want to bring as perfect an experience as they can to the user, and they are willing to fight carriers and other established industry sloths to do so. You could argue that this single-mindedness on Apple’s part has bad holistic consequences (environmental damage, worker rights and conditions, so on). But to argue that this fails as a principle in comparison to clever ways to push ads to consumers will retaining the legacy chokehold of the carriers is an absolute flight of fancy.

The issues are clear: Apple wants to sell devices. Their strategy to succeed at this is to try to build products that users want or will want. Google wants to push ads to the maximum number of people. Their strategy to do so is to give away free software and services (to carriers, in this instance). The carriers want to retain the legacy revenue margins and minimise their outlays for new technologies. Their strategy to do so is to find ways to make imitations of what Apple makes, that they have greater control over. Final part of this puzzle: you are the user. What or who serves you best?

2 Responses  
  • Girokonto Kostenlose writes:

    I think both these giant companies are trying perfectly to increase their products sale effectively. The iPhone and Google Android both are now dominating market, thus it’s our choice to seek out the best device edition in the end. In my guess I think Android is leading way ahead of iPhone, because of their free apps service. Thanks

    • ravi writes:

      Girokonto, I don’t disagree, but my argument is that both by the measure of the benefits to the users and to Google, Android has not paid off. With regard to Google, consider the fact that Amazon has forked the basic Android OS, added their own marketplace and user interface and using this version they now dominate the non-smartphone Android market (Kindle Fire) and Android apps market. Google cannot reach these users either to channel ads or to sell apps to them. From the perspective of users, Android has not liberated them to better use their devices, but rather enabled telcos to continue to trap the users into their environments and restrictions. Less than 2% (last count) of Android devices have access to last year’s version of Android i.e, these devices are running a 2 year old OS and missed one or more updates. Not because of technical reasons but because of telco behaviour.

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