Android not open

I've written several times that the "openness" argument made against Apple's iPhone in general, and by Google against Apple in particular is overblown and often disingenuous. Sure, other smartphones might theoretically be more open at the platform level, but when it comes down to manufacturers and carriers, the end user-facing openness is just not there. We've already been through how manufacturers can lock down ROMs, carriers can lock out side-loading and add bloat-ware, and Google themselves can remote kill apps. But we haven't had real look at just how much of the "completely open" platforms are, you know, completely open.

Enter Robert Werlinger from sibling site who is at OSCON 2010 and sat in for a talk by the Free Software Foundation on why open-source doesn't always mean open on smartphones.

Just how proprietary are the implementations of Android? After examining what isn’t open source and why in contemporary Android phones (and on HTC G1), Williamson set out to see just how open he could make his phone while still maintaining phone functionality. After stripping all of the proprietary software with the exception of the modem firmware and audio routing software, he was left without: A camera, GPS, WIFI, Sensors, 3D , Bluetooth, Market. A surprising lack of functionality in an operating system that is presumably so “open”. Indeed, Android employs a similar licensing structure to MeeGo and Symbian: The Kernel is GPL and everything is Apache 2.0, allowing for proprietary modifications.

Bottom line, on a truly "open" Android device, you can't even make a phone call. Eric Schmidt's "completely open" is hyperbole when it comes to end users, even power end users. Robert sums it up nicely:

The biggest problem from an enthusiast standpoint is that folks like Cyanogen will continue to exist in a legal grey area, as members of the “open handset alliance” continue to perpetuate the myth that its platform has anything to do with openness.

Apple's iOS is based on the open-source, BSD-licensed Mach kernel and network layers wrapped up in a completely proprietary UI and totally closed and controlled app platform. That has advantages and disadvantages and every user -- from hax0r girl to soccer dad -- will have to decide what better suits their needs.

Any company that thinks they can re-frame the discussion around false "openness" is in for a surprise, however, just as any user switching platforms over philosophy is going to get burned. That's why philosophy be left out of the discussion and smartphone platforms and their backers compete with each other based on technology. In that arena, Google and their Android partners are catching up fast (even overtaking depending on who you asked). In that arena, Microsoft's newly reborn, and proprietary Windows Phone 7 is just as interesting as Palm's extremely open if not open-source, and newly acquired webOS, RIM's ultra locked down, uber-secure BlackBerry as much competition as Nokia's slowly opening Symbian.

Don't believe me? Believe the FSF. Just like cake, "open smartphones" are a lie.