Where Credit Is Due

Chain Links

I’ve been thinking about this for a bit, but finding this Onion article among other recent news spurred me to get it written up.

Google has impressed me on a couple of fronts recently; the first was their quite prompt about-face with respect to the Buzz default settings. I was surprised at how quickly – about two days – it took to turn that all the way around; their Buzz feature now suggests rather than shares by default, and the options for turning it all the way off are much easier find and use.

The second is that now, on their flagship portable OS, they’ve made installing “unapproved” software – as in “unvetted by Google”, as in “actually owning your own phone” – a decision you can make with a single checkbox. Phone manufacturers and telcos are doing their best to mess this up for people, in the traditional manner: installing old versions of Android, locking them down and just generally making products as crappy as they can before selling them to people who don’t know better.

This shouldn’t sound like I’m coming down on people for not understanding the guts of their portable electronics, because that’s not what I mean; to clarify, I mean that people are going to see “Android” on the side, and expect to get the benefits of an up-to-date version of Android. You don’t expect to see that laptop you bought from Dell last week to arrive with Windows For Workgroups on it, you know? A while ago, I said:

Boy, ChromeOS (and, indeed, Android) has a rocky future ahead of it. Just recently, Google pulled out their increasingly dog-eared copy of the Classic Microsoft playbook and started putting the screws to their Android clients in a move seasoned veterans of the Microsoft desktop space will find immediately familiar. “We have no intention of developing a competing product. Please, use our OS. Go right ahead, we have no intention of developing a competing product. None. Did I mention we’re not going to sell a phone? Use Android, love Android, let us help you use Android and love Android. Invest heavily in Android. Oh, you did? Great! Check out the new Google Phone! Isn’t it awesome?”

And I still think that was a dick move, but Motorola has since gone ahead and used an older version of Android to build a crappy, locked-down proprietary-goop-laden phone, reverting to the Motorola norm by taking beautifully-made hardware, pouring the worst software they can all over it and completely and utterly justifying said dick-movery. Google has, whatever the political risks of alienating their collaborators, built their own phone with the best software on it that they can provide, that you can buy directly from them. They’ve put a stake in the ground and said this is what Android can be, unlocked, free and open, and they’ve put their name on the side.

The last, and biggest one is that Google has started redirecting searches done on Google.CN to Google.com.HK – search, news and images – to provide uncensored results to Chinese citizens.

I don’t have a clear view of how this is going to play out – playing “this is perfectly legal” with a country that sanctions the black-market sale of the organs of executed dissidents seems to me an extraordinarily risky move, particularly when you’re doing it by turning China’s semi-balkanized internal politics against it. But to take that stand and assume that risk as a matter of principle is extraordinary, very nearly unheard of in a world where your typical large corporation will fall all over itself to collaborate with corrupt or oppressive governments when there’s a whiff of profit to be made, assuming they’re not the one doing to corrupting and oppressing themselves.

To borrow a line from a friend, it’s pretty shocking how much of the future depends on Google not being evil; open systems at a time when everyone else is building high-walled, tightly-controlled gardens, drawing bright lines about who they’re willing to cooperate with when most companies are racing to be the best collaborators they can be, offering security and uncensored information to their customers instead of just trying to monetize them… decisions like these, made for ideals beyond profit, are not exactly the common parlance these days, but they get more important all the time.

A few years ago, I said:

Any digital forums that allow public participation are either:

  • Gated communities, or
  • Running firefights.

[…] It follows that, for a piece of socialware to survive widespread uptake it must have mechanisms in place that provide its primary administrators with:

  • walls, and/or

  • guns.

… and I’m relieved that guns of the calibre Google can level aren’t pointed back at us.

Have a comment? The original article is here.

6 Comments

  1. Posted March 22, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    I would take issue with two of your points, here:

    “they’ve made installing “unapproved” software – as in “unvetted by Google”, as in “actually owning your own phone” – a decision you can make with a single checkbox.”

    “They’ve put a stake in the ground and said this is what Android can be, unlocked, free and open, and they’ve put their name on the side.”

    See, there’s a whole lot more to “owning your own phone” than being able to install unapproved software.

    I note that the Android Market locks out users running the open-source build of Android on their handsets. So, although the Nokia N900 can boot Android from the microSD card slot, it won’t allow you to pay for applications.

    I think that the freedom to pay for software is just as important as the freedom to rebuild your own.

  2. mhoye
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Do you have a citation for that open-source-build-is-blocked claim? I can’t find it, though in fairness I am using Google to look.

  3. Posted March 22, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Quotation: The Android Market is simply a sales channel, and basically orthogonal to the issue of openness in most senses. If you want to install apps on an open build of Android, you can use alternate app stores like SlideMe or AndAppStore, or you could (presumably) pay for an app on a webpage, and get a link to download the .apk, like people pay for PC software today.

    That said, obviously access to the Android Market is something that makes the phone a lot niffer. From a quick google, it looks like this is something that is enabled only when the device knows what carrier/country you’re in(?), and that you can download open source apps to override this setting if you want.

  4. Posted March 22, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    (Interestingly more googling indicates that they haven’t rolled out the paid apps in the Android Market for Canada yet?)

  5. mhoye
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    We’re traditionally quite a ways behind modern civilization when it comes to these things. I may have mentioned it before.

  6. mhoye
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    3G Igloos: Hard.