Google’s Android platform has been heralded as “the open alternative” to Apple’s iOS, argued to carry fewer restrictions and a more open app environment. We’ll discuss a few reasons why this may not be true, and also discuss the merits of Apple’s “walled garden” approach.
I have previously written on the subject of inherent concerns within Android, and with Google’s business practices an ideals, with an article I wrote back in early February – this piece is largely an extension and update to that article.
Apple has long been criticized for operating its app store as a “walled garden,” that is to say, implementing a tight approval process in order to have better and more secure apps, at the cost of excluding certain apps and developers, while Google’s Android has generally claimed to be more open and allowing. This alleged openness comes at a cost, however. Consider the following:
1. The Android Market has been found to contain as many as 58 apps that contain malicious and information-stealing code embedded therein. The lack of Marketplace standards opens the user up to the risk of loss of information.
2. Poorly formed applications, or those that implement strange internal APIs, can significantly slow down a device, or even cause crashes, cause other apps not to work correctly, or even cause system-wide instability.
3. Even while allowing an infinite and unlimited number of unrestricted third party apps, Google could allow their Marketplace to be a safe haven – the one location where apps require approval, are checked out, and ensured to be free of malicious code and potential performance pitfalls. This would allow consumers to securely download apps without worrying, but would still give them the option to use any other third party app of their choice – but at their own risk.
The Trouble With Open Platforms
The open-ness has become a concerning aspect, and even Google has realized that this can be a problem. This is evident in several of Google’s recent decisions, such as their decision to “combat fragmentation” by requiring approval of developer’s future development plans before they are granted access to pre-release development builds of future Android updates.
The same report, from Bloomberg, also notes that Google has increasing been asking Android distributors to sign a “non-fragmentation clause” that gives the search giant the “final say” on how manufacturers can “tweak the code.” Bloomberg also casually mentions that Facebook is one of the parties upset about that particular measure, as it has “been working to fashion its own variant of Android for smartphones.”
Google’s apparent (though perhaps artificial) stand on open-ness has been popular to their following, with many of their users believing that they are supporting free and open development practices. Apple, on the other hand, has taken a more cautious approach even from the beginning.
Apple, while still respecting freedom of development, has established a set of standards that applications must adhere to. These standards help to ensure that apps are efficient, do not contain malicious code, and aren’t going to cause stability problems. They also encourage a better-written program that runs faster and more efficiently.
While Apple has been criticized for being the gatekeeper of the App Store, you can’t argue with the overall success they’ve had. Apple currently has more than 350,000 apps and over 10 billion apps downloaded. That’s a lot of trust from customers.
Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about downloading an app for their mobile device. For the most part, the only people that care about an app store being open are technically inclined users who follow the open source movement.
Android’s Slippery Slope
Google’s core values with Android appear to be slipping. Consider their recent decision to close the source for their latest Honeycomb operating system. Google’s original claims have largely revolved around Android being completely open, and even open-source. Google is retracting from one of its core values.
Also consider the ever-increasing degree to which Google has reduced or inhibited their supposedly open app development environment, considering the above-mentioned non-fragmentation clauses. As well, despite Google’s supposed standards, Apps are routinely removed from the MarketPlace (and from the phones of people who possible paid for the app) when they are found to be problematic.
Considering Google’s significant habit of back-peddling on their core values and promises when it comes to Android, the true question arises: Is Google really a champion of the open domain at all?
I want to make it clear that I am not merely hating on the Android platform here. I have, for instance, used and quite enjoyed a Nexus S. I am merely pointing out that there are inherent risks with a completely open platform, and significant concerns to consider when a company backs down from seemingly important core values and practices – especially when those ideas were foundational for the platform’s adoption and success.
While Android is a great platform, people should not put too much stock in their Savior promises of a free and open, yet extremely secure platform. The platform, however delightful, does fail to be a truly free, open, and secure platform. And no, it really can’t do anything significant that my iPhone cannot.
To conclude, I’ll re-iterate the following points:
1. Completely open platforms pose significant security risks, and can often allow apps that can degrade the performance of the platform, steal information, or cause a number of other problems that casual users of the platform should not be expected to accept.
2. Google is becoming less open and more standards-based, backing down significantly from their founding principles, and from the ideas that they used to rally users and developers to their cause. Android simply is not the open platform that people think it is.
3. Apple’s “walled garden” approach may seem frustrating and even anti-consumer on the face, but in reality it is the only true way to ensure the safety, stability, compatibility, and long-term functionality of both individual apps, as well as the platform itself.
Consumers expect their smartphones to always work, should not have to worry about security and stability concerns, and should be able to download any app they choose from an official “App Store” or Marketplace without having to worry about the possible security or stability implications. Apple’s route might be a tough one, but at least they continue to defend their core values – and at least Apple’s users can rest assured of their own safety in the security and protection of the walled garden.
This article is inspired by, and partially in response to, a wonderful article written by The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple, which I heartily agree with. I highly encourage you to read the original article.