Open, open, open

In this crazy little world we called Android, we're all guilty of throwing around that four-letter word: Open. From the top -- Google CEO Eric Schmidt -- all the way to the bottom -- your friendly neighborhood blogger -- we wield the word like a sword when convenient, or as a shield when necessary.

The exact definition of "open" in the general sense has been debated long before Android arrived on the scene, and it'll be debated long after Android assumes its rightful position atop the smartphone heap. (See what we did there?) You have your ideas of what "open" means. We have ours. And we share them, after the break. You're not going to agree with them all. Hell, you're not going to like them all. And that's OK. 

Phil Nickinson, editor, Android Central

There's been a pretty significant blurring of "open source" and the more metaphysical and less easily defined "open" of late. "Open" is good. "Closed" is bad, or so it goes. Throw in all the good-and-evil, Dark Side-Light Side metaphors you want. Then throw them out. They don't matter. OK, they matter. But not to the entities that really make the decisions.

"Open" is just a political buzzword at this point. Android started out (and still is) open-source. It's (largely) developed in an open manner. I'm amazed by the organization and quality by the likes of the CyanogenMod endeavor, taking code from various sources and compiling it into a ROM that's greater than the sum of its parts. Don't like what's in the CyanogenMod ROM? Grab the code and change it however you like. That's open-source at its purest.

But there's a gray area. Manufacturers have proprietary code, and that's not "open." But it (usually) makes for a better -- or at least more interesting -- phone. So don't hate Google. Don't hate HTC. Don't hate Samsung. Don't hate Motorola.

No, in the war that is "open" and "closed," I direct my scowl squarely on the carriers. Ultimately, they're the ones squeezing out every last nickel and dime in exchange for a bit of usability here, a tad of true "openness" there, control and -- on more than one occasion -- a blatant "WTF?!?! moment. The manufacturer's goal is to make the best phone it can. The carrier's goal is to make the most money out of it as it can. Those goals can work together. Sometimes they don't.

Let's face it, Android's never going to be as "open" as we want. Things weren't ever the same after Woodstock, either. Android has lost its innocence that we fell in love with nearly two years ago. 

Jerry Hildenbrand, Android Central writer

Open means anyone (even you) can build Android however and whenever they like. Manufacturers can make decisions such as using Android on poorly preforming hardware, or locking hardware so the end user doesn't have control. Carriers can make decisions like stripping out features, or adding their own -- even features we don't like. None of this has anything to do with Google, anymore than Linus Torvalds is responsible for the myriad crappy Linux distributions available.

It's your responsibility as a user to do your homework and stop supporting companies that do things you don't condone. Vote with your wallet. I am.

Sean Brunett, Android Central writer

Android openness is a win for the ideals and commitment to further innovation. New ideas and progress come when competition is allowed to flourish. There are countless companies with great ideas that should enjoy healthy competition, each contributing to furthering technology. The fact that Android is free allows manufacturers to offer sleek handsets, improving as competition pushes them to do so. This applies to just about every aspect of the OS, including most recently marketplaces. If there is a company that feels it can sift through apps and recommend more effectively than the Android Market, bring it on. AppBrain has done a remarkable job and Amazon looks to be next. The developer community is vast and incredibly intelligent; if something is possible and developers are allowed free reign, the sky is the limit.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t companies closing it to their liking. It’s fine to set defaults, but allow users the decision on whether he/she wants it. A mobile phone is such a personal device that there isn’t one company that can or should dictate what consumers want. This is exactly why the onslaught of Android phones to the market is only a good thing. While it may be annoying to buy and a phone and watch others come out a few weeks later, consumer choice is great. Personal inclinations should not be underestimated and with a slew of companies constantly innovating rather than one or two, whatever features your "dream device" would have are likely to be realized sooner than later.

Dallin Hampton, Android Central writer

The word "open" refers to something that is, "accessible to all." Although when the word open is used in relation to Google and Android, it takes on a techie spin while still retaining its root meaning, which is that you, the user, are in complete control. Due to Androids open nature,what you get out of your device is completely dependent on you. Whether you want to trick out your UI like nobody's business, turn it into a mobile office or a photo editing powerhouse and countless other possibilities, you can do it with Android because there is nothing there to stop you, save it be access to the root directory of your phone, which can be accessed with a little time and patience and if you still find yourself unsatisfied with your experience, there is nobody to blame but yourself and a lack of creativity or effort.

Kyle Gibb, Android Central writer

To me, open means that Google doesn't decide for you what features or apps a user will find useful. Sure, you may not use Flash on your phone much, but Google doesn't go and tell Adobe, "No, thanks." It is up to you, the individual consumer, to decide if you want to use Flash, or widgets, or live wallpapers, or even Google search (i.e. Bing app). Google does not police the Market, which allow apps like pdaNet (an easy-to-use tethering app) and Handcent (a complete replacement for the stock SMS app) to flourish. Google can and should exercise some limited control over manufacturers that step way out of line by removing core features, replacing Google apps with their own, or in other extreme cases, but they need to be sure to never use a heavy hand. They should also work with developers and carriers to make sure devices are getting updated to the latest version of the OS. But fundamentally, being open is about having choice, wither that means manufacturer, carrier, apps, or even style of phone, and Android is the only Mobile OS that is truly offering choice to all users.

Andrew Melnizek, Android Central writer

Only just few years ago, I remember a time when you bought a cell phone that was resricted to ugly icons, boring interfaces, and sluggish programming. Finding the right phone today is a much different. Phones are marketed to do more than just calling. I can't even remember that last time I haven't heard the words Twitter or Facebook in a cell phone ad. So how does this relate to openness? I believe Android  is still far from being a true open platform. For now, the only people that really care about the fact that you can root your Android device is -- you guessed it -- you and I. Trust me, your mom doesn't care if she can root her new Fascinate. She just wants to be able call you and do a little thing called texting. So for right now, "Open" is just a mere talking point in a marketing campaign. We are only at the beginning, people. Until everyone understands what it means to have an open phone, we will still be limited and restricted to some degree. These companies are in the business of making money. Like Jerry said, use your wallet to make some noise.

Ali Fazel, Android Central writer

When referring to Android and Google, open to me means that Google makes the software, distributes the code, and then allows anyone to take it anywhere that they want. Open means caring enough about being open that the software is allowed to be taken even to places Google never intended or even wanted Android to go for better or for worse. This does not mean that Google cannot put out features for Android that are not open, because that in and of itself would be against the spirit of open software. In fact, a good example of this now would be the Market and Gmail apps. This also means that Google will allow non-open (note that I didn't say closed) solutions to be integrated into a particular application of Android's open software. We have examples of this with HTC's Sense and Samsung's TouchWiz. Being open, however, does not mean that Google should not be allowed to restrict what enters their Market. While this is very nice, Google could close the current open access to the Market and still have an open OS in Android, provided that they allow users to install unofficial applications from sources other than the Market.

When taken this way, Android is open when Google is done with it. It is the carriers and manufacturers that close the OS. Ironically, it is because Android is so open that they are allowed to do this.

Jared DiPane, Android Central Writer

Open is, a word that has many meanings in daily life. An open door is something that you can walk right through, but an open OS may not be the same thing. Android started off as an "open source" project, meaning that many parts of the Android code were readily available to developers who wished to mirror it and make other changes to customize it to their liking. There has always been rooting and jailbreaking and leaked OS's that have been tinkered with in the mobile world and Android just wanted to make it easier for those users it seemed. Allowing users complete control is not the only way that this can be defined as open source, there are going to be limitations, there will be decisions made that end users may not like, but there is a business to run at the end of the day. The OS is "open" -- that means open to the developers, the carriers, the providers, etc, so there will be modifications made, like the choice to go with Bing over Google as default, that will upset some consumers but Google will still be making money, and selling another device that is running the Android OS. Limitations are normal, everyone, everything has a limitation, there is no difference between a cellular phone OS or a superhuman.

Mickey Papillon,, Android Central Podcast

Open is a philosophy. It means whether we're talking about software development, hardware standards, or carrier acceptance, the premise is that the user is in control.

Carrier "openness" is a topic that has been under heavy criticism since high-end smartphones like the first-generation iPhone was tied down to AT&T. Carriers in the U.S. that use SIM cards (AT&T and T-Mobile) have an easier time with "open" than their CDMA (Verizon and Sprint) counterparts. A few years ago, AT&T stated that you could use any handset you wanted on its network. However, you can't take any AT&T handset to another network due to software locks. The simple "move your SIM card" to another phone, only goes so far. In a world with different data plans for the iOS, Blackberry and Android, the swapping of phones can be just as tough as the ESN centric CDMA side.

On that side, unless you've got a "guy," bringing a handset from one CDMA carrier to another is very difficult. The carriers want you to use one that is specifically for their network, with each of the "value added" apps that ties you into their ecosystem. If you bring a device from another carrier, (say a Sprint phone to Verizon), how are they going to get VZ Navigator software onto the device, to "allow" you to add that service to your monthly plan. It's a revenue game, and each carrier wants to maximize it in any way possible.

There are 21 comments

jelly roll says:

I have been waiting for this, thanks

eric6052 says:

Im guessing Rene has already read this. He seems like kind of a closet Phil fanboy. He always qiluotes Phil during his TiPb podcast. Hopefully he does read this and respond. I would like to see a similar article on all the SPE sites. Getting the views of all the writers of this site was great and getting that diversity from accross the other platforms would be even better.

icebike says:

There is no possibility of making a single dent in Rene's worldview.

For him the sun rises and sets on Steve Jobs, and nothing you say or do will convince him otherwise. He will give grudging lip service to Android while in the company of the rest of the SPE editors, and spread fud about selling your soul to google in a blog post.

He can't see android as anything but the enemy, he can't see any non-apple hardware as anything but crap.

For the rest of us, very few of use even know the names of the CEO of the company who made our phones. We don't have man-crushes on some designer who put the finishing touch on our phones. We don't even know their names.

There are too many to name.

Nothing here will matter to him.

Rene Ritchie says:

I do read this site constantly and hold Phil and Jerry's opinions in the highest esteem. I'm correct about Android, but it amazes me how snowed people are when it comes to corporate use and misuse of the term "open". Technical discussions about this or that exact nuance in terminology aside, there's an emotional and human element to the ideology of "open" and that's what's often getting left out of these discussions. Very few big companies adhere to the spirit of openness because it's just not in their best interests. Users fall for it every time though. Google, Adobe, and others behave atrociously to their own end users, wave an "open" flag, and the same users fight to death for them. It's as vulgar as Apple's "we know what's best for you" patronization yet it gets cut such slack. And the line about selling your soul to Google is Dieter's not mine. BTW - It's a tad douchy calling me out over here, when you find your pair again come argue with me on TiPb. I value the different opinions, yours especially.

estebancam says:

Sure, "open" can be defined in several, and logically, the more parties that have access to a product means the more control those parties will have over the product.

However, your particular emotive response about the term "open" is geared in a pro-Apple sentiment. While I am not an "Apple Hater" by any means, every time I read one of your posts about an "open" platform, I sense a strong sentiment towards Apple, as if you are attempting to justify such a tightly controlled platform over Google's different approach.

It is not a lie. The very fact that any manufacturer, or individual, can acquire Android and write in what they wish is in its very essence open. When you write about the "openess" of the Google Android platform, you write of how open it's not. When in any logical mind, it is.

I do not look down on Apple for keeping its platform tightly controlled. In fact, I understand that often times it means for a better, superior product with little fragmentation and software glitches. However, I do not understand why anyone, including yourself, would ever compare the open system of Android to a closed system like Apple's. In your posts, you attempt to justify and create reasons to lead readers to believe that Android is not an open platform, when in fact it is. I can do whatever I want with the platform, so can manufacturers, and so can carriers (I mean, look at Verizon putting BING in a Google phone. You think Apple would be ok with that?)

I enjoy most of your posts. However, I, like the people here, do see a very strong bias. And although every one of these sites has a bias, your happens to be unrealistic when you speak of open v. closed (and very few other things). Keep doing what you are doing, though, you do a good job, and you develop an attitude. I respect writers who I am able to converse with about subjective subjects; writers that act like people, not just machines typing out facts.

estebancam says:

Go show this to Mr. Rene Ritchie over at TiPb.

crxssi says:

Jerry: "None of this has anything to do with Google, anymore than Linus Torvalds is responsible for the myriad crappy Linux distributions available."

Perhaps you should clarify that Linus Torvalds is also not responsible for the wide selection of *extremely good* Linux distributions available either?

eric6052 says:

Great article. Its always interesting to see different viewpoints on the same subject. Open really can mean so many things good or bad and as Gerry says "vote with your wallet" is the best way to show manufacturers and carriers what open means to you. So far I think the openess of Android has been a great strength by allowing such a wide variety of choice in phone choice, user interface and carrier choice. Its largely up to us as the users to keep it that way.

Nirvana328 says:

"It's your responsibility as a user to do your homework and stop supporting companies that do things you don't condone. Vote with your wallet. I am."


and that's why I went with the Nexus One on T-Mobile. Great phone, great carrier, and no hassles or nonsense from either of them.

estebancam says:

Yeah. I have Sprint. I feel they are just as good of a carrier.

Verizon is becoming too big and too strong. They no longer heed to the customer's well being. They are beginning to lock out everything and force the consumer to have less choices. Which is out of the spirit of the Android platform.

Apple can do that because they manufacture hardware. And i'm ok with that. But the carrier is the last resort for consumers, and Verizon is being very unfriendly. I won't ever have them as long as they continue this attitude.

sgtmilstack says:

The VAST majority of VzW customers (not in forums: imo we account for a small percentage of the consumer base) may not be aware of the invisible walls closing in on them. Some may not care and only desire a working device.

Kiserai says:

I completely agree, which is why I spent the full 529.00 for the AT&T version of the Nexus One. It was one of the easiest cell phone buying experiences of my life, since I didn't have anybody trying to convince me to go with another iPhone, and I had enough videos of people unboxing it and testing it out that I knew EXACTLY what I was getting before I bought it.

I loved the iPhone when I first got it, but I just got so tired of OS updates messing with my jailbreak that I gave up. The cat and mouse game was fun for a while, but every time I had to go back to using stock firmware for a month at a time I would get more and more angry at Apple. I want to be able to customize my experience, even if I'm not some amazing programmer, and the Nexus One dev community always comes through. Honestly, the Nexus One will be my favorite phone for a long time just because of how much developer support there is. Look on XDA at the Nexus One Android Development forum and be amazed.

Is Android perfect? No. But it allows people to do what they can to make it perfect, and doesn't actively impede progress by releasing updates to stop you from tinkering. That is why I chose Android over any other OS, and I will continue to support it until another OS does "open" even better.

sleepy#AC says:

Well done guys. Very appropriate considering all the upcoming battles in the courtroom. The carriers do have way too much influence. The OEM's do have some accountability here as well though. I can't speak for Motorola, as I do not own a Droid. However, I do own 2 HTC phones, 1 Samsung phone and 1 device from Dell, and I have found the experience to be very different. I have no complaints about the 2.1 and 2.2 experiences on the HTC devices (love HTC). I have little complaints regarding the 1.6 implementation on the Dell (other then it needs to be updated, but really like what Dell has done), but the 2.1 experience on the Samsung leaves much to be desired. Other then the really nice looking super amoled display, the device has many issues with functionality. In this case, AT&T is not to blame (even though I really want to blame them here), but in fact this is directly on Samsung. They should not have released the phones with so many issues. Voting with my wallet by not buying Samsung in the future. The openness of Android allows me to make that choice. Great read!

dkoss says:

Carriers have and always will be in the business of making money from their phones, I do not consider them really to be a big part of this discussion. The choice of carrier is not always made by the customer as much as the location the customer uses his/her phone. To me "open" is the software of the phone, as long as I have the choice and ability to access the code and change it as I see fit for my needs I will be content with the "openness" of Android (this includes changing kernels, Motorola). I bought the D1 and loved the "openness" of the phone. Then comes DX and D2 I was just about to pull the trigger and then discovered bootloadergate (sorry, couldn't resist) reset the hammer and waited. Along comes the Fascinate and the embrace of Samsung to the OSS community. The Bling debacle happens and people are up in arms, which to me makes less since throwing a fit about than a locked bootloader. Don't get me wrong, I don't care for Microsoft and think VZ really screwed the pooch by not giving a choice, but I know that Bling on the Fascinate is a carrier choice that has been made due to large amounts of money being paid by MS to VZ, but it is also a temporary inconvenience that I can remedy with a little time and effort, the true beauty of being "open". I 100% agree with Jerry to vote with our wallets and that is why I do not own a Windows computer or an Apple for that matter, and if Verizon continues on the slippery slope they have started and my coverage area gets better support from other carriers I will drop them. I am not going to financially support a company that I idealogicaly disagree with nor will I support a company that decides to lock essential parts of their hardware. I have been a member of this community since I bought my first droid and think it's a great place for people to come to learn about their Android OS. I am just glad that the door has been opened for people to learn about and form their own opinions of what Open Source Software is and what they feel it should be.

P.S. For anyone that does not know who Linus Torvalds is or is interested in learning more about the Linux and GNU origins I would recommend checking out the documentary "Revolution OS".

sgtmilstack says:

Great insights! Thoughts to a couple excerpts are below(Note- I recently joined Android & have been with Big Red for over 9 years so my views may be slightly different):

"Let's face it, Android's never going to be as "open" as we want."

- The adage "all Good Things Must Come to an End" comes to mind. And I would like to say that Android's open nature is its Achilles heel. Sure, the consumers enjoy an open device, but the carriers did too, especially Verizon. Big Red likes to take control of many aspects of a device and Android was the perfect avenue to enhance their control (and generate extra income of course).

"It's your responsibility as a user to do your homework and stop supporting companies that do things you don't condone. Vote with your wallet. I am."

- Definitely a good point. Unfortunately, I feel that all the research in the world doesn't help obtaining a more "open" device/carrier (That's T-Mo) if the coverage isn't there. People may be stuck with a locked down device/carrier because they frankly can't do anything about it, short of making changes to their location.

I love the OS now, and VzW will be my carrier for a good while longer. Hoping that I will say the same when my upgrade time approaches.

dan1431 says:

Can OPEN be profitable? Clearly Google feels that Android is a profitable endeavor, but do the carriers?

OPEN means that I can alter my phone to maybe do thing that the carrier may not approve of, or may charge for the feature.

This is the problem with OPEN and my sense why the N1 did not fly with the VZW and SPRINT, it could not be controlled.

OPEN allows me to use the Mobile HotSpot feature of my N1 and provide free tethering to five of my best friends ad-hoc all for the low low price of $30 dollars for unlimited DATA. OPEN is not profitable when you are monetizing each and every bit of what you offer and by not having any controls on the device I can bypass some of that monetizing.


icebike says:

The other thing to remember is there will never be a totally Open Source phone.

The FCC will never allow user modifiable radios. Those will always be controlled by closed source binary drivers.

The difference between a CDMA radio and a GSM radio could be ALL controlled by software using a generic radio. But there is no way presently to certify such a device. They have to be tightly controlled by closed source code to prevent interference with other users and carriers.

mrw333 says:

Most of this site's writers and commenters keep circling around, but never hitting the central problem. The US mobile market is not truly open and competitive. If it were, we could vote with our wallets and it would have an impact. Today, we really can't. None of the major US carriers has truly comprehensive national coverage and each makes it difficult to switch easily from one to another by using different radio technologies and/or frequencies. On top of this consumers are lured by subsidies into getting locked with a carrier and device for two years, while the underlying technology is changing much faster.

The anti-competitive nature of the US mobile networks and providers is the fundamental problem, regardless of which phone or OS one is using. When the time comes that one can purchase a device of one's choosing; freely select a carrier and service; and change the carrier or service with little friction then we'll have a free market for mobile. Until then the discussion of the definition and benefits of open source is intellectually interesting but essentially meaningless. In this context, terms like "open" or "open source" are being used for marketing and branding purposes. Make the mobile networks and providers truly competitive and then we'll see the benefits of open source.

ads says:

So in summary, I think there are at least 3 major components here.
1. Android, and many, many apps, are open by requirement, as they use a license that requires them to be. But as written above, two other things happen after that that get complex. They are:
2. The use of proprietary function or true innovation that isn't based on use of an open license source, the type of things the big boys all sue each other over. This allows some nice stuff, like pinch to zoom, for example. To illustrate, this isn't about Android or open source so much as it is a concept; this didn't exist before .. (smartphones close as I know), now it does. Innovative companies want to protect this stuff. I don't blame them; well, at least the ones who produce a tangible product.
3. Supportability/appropriateness. This part is the hardest to stomach, but is what creates the possibility of different offerings that seem or are at some level proprietary, and offer the provider a way to make money. Supportability/appropriateness would refer to the to the hardware and network on which Android and/or a given app runs. That is, the carriers are in a sense just like the linux distro providers. They build a package, with their own tools, that they agree to support, in specific cases (like which hardware they agree to support). the model differs a bit from the paid support distro providers in that the support is .. poor, for anything past a basic new user question, and because they deal with up to millions of end users with endless (usually low) skill variety, they've also made it difficult to modify the Android devices primarily, IMO, to control their support costs. If they did NOT do this, their support costs would price Android-based devices completely out of the market. So we can complain, but this is the reality. If they made it easy for ANY (think low skilled) user to change any part of the phone, they wouldn't be able to even keep their customer support folks trained on basic questions, a task many of them seem to struggle with even on closed platforms. So, that is the business model today. It isn't evil, it is capitalism, and the carriers are publicly held companies with stockholders to please.
Now , to heck with these evil carriers you say? OK, you can probably still get a completely open Linux based phone or two, see
As you can see from the hardware, this business model doesn't seem to be keeping up. Why? Well, little money to be made would be my guess. Or, root your phone and accept the risks. You can wail on this all you want, it isn't reasonable to expect carriers to offer much if any support for modified phones. It is simply cost-prohibitive.
I don't begrudge the carriers the need to please their shareholders and make money. The only piece I believe is wrong, and could certainly be won in court, is the loss of warranty for rooting, IF, one put one's phone back to stock. At that point, the phone is completely supportable again, and there cannot be any reasonable argument against supporting it. I'm not a lawyer, but believe there is substantial legal precedence here if the right case were to be taken up. I don't suppose it would be much trouble to code a bootstrap or bios alternative that would easily wipe the current load and re-install the most current OTA offering either. Hopefully we'll get to this point someday.

burpootus says:

I recently purchased a DroidX, it's my first smartphone. I've only owned dumbphones up until this point. I read with interest about all of the custom ROM's that were available for other devices and I lazily let myself believe that the locked bootloader on the X was no big deal. It's my fault, I admit it completely. Customizing my phone was important to me and I bought one with a locked bootloader. I thought it was some token thing they did and the community would bypass it in short order. Turns out that's not the case, Moto is very serious about it. No official SBF is out in the wild for the OTA 2.2 release and they changed the bootloader keys with the update. Since I am a later adopter, I came into the smartphone world with the same expectations that I have for a computer. I will be the administrator, or root if you prefer, on my computer and also on my smartphone. Just like I wouldn't buy a Dell and let them remain as the administrator, the same holds true for my smartphone. So this first purchase has been an eye opener for me. I like the idea of voting with your pocket book. No more locked bootloaders for me in the future.

doogald says:

There is no doubt that Android is open sourced; there is no doubt that iOS is not. However, my Android phone is as not open as an iPhone is not. I suppose that HTC is happy that they can customize their Android phones so easily, but that means nothing to me, who wants to remove the Amazon MP3 player (but cannot), who wants to remove the bloated Sense launcher (but cannot), who wants to swap HTC's proprietary people app for Android's open one (but cannot.)

Well, I can do all of that because I rooted, but an iPhone owner can jailbreak as well.