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.

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.
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Google and Apple
March 29th, 2012 by ravi

There was a time when Google and Apple were sitting on the forbidden tree… or something like that. Google CEO Eric Schmidt appeared on stage at Apple events and sat behind the scene on Apple’s board. Together they drove Microsoft out of our lives. Then Google decided to enter the mobile OS market out of fear of losing access to mobile phone users. And what better way to challenge Apple’s iPhone and its alliance with AT&T than to offer up the Google mobile OS Android for free to Verizon (and other telcos including AT&T)? This Google defined as “open”. Predictably Android provoked the ire of Steve Jobs who took to the company town hall to decry the terrible evil that had been done. The relationship turned sour and today the two giants are slinging lawyers at each other through intermediaries and proxies (heck, Google went out and bought an entire company, Motorola — a small step for Google but a giant leap for the science of lawyering up — while Apple coupled up with friends like Microsoft to buy patents from the defunct Nortel and others).

Building the Google-telco-user relationship around the free Android OS has led to a high level of fragmentation, lack of access to new features/updates for users (less than 2% of Android devices run the latest version of Android) and strangest of all: Microsoft makes more money than Google on Android (thanks to patents) and Google makes more money on iOS than it does on Android (thanks to Apple’s use of Google services).

There was another way this could have played out. As John Gruber writes today, “Google made a mistake by deciding to oppose rather than ally with Apple on mobile”. This is all the more the case given their complementary strengths and weaknesses. Google’s good at big data and infrastructure and poor at user experience. Apple’s infrastructure capabilities are only now being tested (iCloud) but they continue to write the book on user experience. Google it appears is unwilling to yield the user to others, lest it be cut out of the loop at a later date. It is not an illegitimate concern from a business perspective. From a user perspective, however, the rivalry is a net loss. Oh well.

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