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Android, Apple, and phone phreedom

By Nathan Willis on October 02, 2008 (9:00:00 PM)

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Google unveiled the first Android-powered cell phone last week, a T-Mobile-branded device dubbed the G1. Comparisons to Apple's iPhone were immediate -- and that is a good thing for Android, when you consider what a raucous and contentious week it was for iPhone developers.

Initial G1 reviews were generally positive, but several reporters complained that when they asked about specific missing applications and features, the reply came back that third-party developers "are welcome to add that." In open source circles, that sort of comment is often regarded as a dodge, what a proprietary vendor says when dumping source code over the wall with no intentions of developing it further.

But at least it is possible to add functionality to Android phones. And it's possible to study the Android platform and discuss the value of pursuing it before you decide to invest your resources.

Not true for the other mobile newsmaker of the week. iPhone application developers had a rough go of it -- Apple changed its acceptance policies, it denied several high-profile apps acceptance into the iPhone App Store for dubious reasons, it shut down one developer's attempt to distribute his app independently, and, finally, it ordered developers not to discuss their rejection in public or else face loss of SDK privileges. It was a big enough story that App Store policies momentarily became the target of satire.

Change is coming

I can't help but think back to April, when we ran an analysis of the iPhone Developer Program's compatibility with free software licenses. After consulting with the Free Software Foundation's licensing compliance officer, we concluded that there was no legal way to participate in the iPhone Developer Program and make your software free. The GPLv3 is right out, because it features an "anti-TiVoization" clause targeted specifically at code-signed platforms like the iPhone. But more importantly, the draconian nondisclosure agreement (NDA) required to access the iPhone SDK ruled out any distribution of source code -- regardless of which free software or open source license the developer preferred.

As you would expect, Apple defenders chimed in, insisting that the NDA should be -- and in fact would be -- interpreted liberally by Apple, permitting discussion and publication of iPhone apps' source code. Well, no. Apple said that the blanket claims of the NDA were as broad as the letter of the contract made them sound. Not only did Apple's legal department view the APIs and function calls described in the SDK as covered by the NDA, it even viewed correspondence between developers and Apple as covered.

Last week's negative press must have finally reached a tipping point, because on October 1, Apple announced that it would do away with the existing NDA and replace it with something new in the coming two weeks. iPhone developers were thrilled at the news.

We will have to wait until the new agreement arrives before assessing how different it is. In the meantime, don't forget that the far-reaching terms of the NDA was only one of the problems. Apple still gets to decide which apps make it into the store, it can remotely kill apps it doesn't like, and we know that any registered developer who tries to distribute an app outside the iPhone App Store will be shut down.

Apple's defenders showed their support for the company on Mac news sites that covered last week's iPhone App hijinks, protesting that Apple was perfectly within its rights to reject iApps that it does not like -- such as those that perform useful functions that Apple may decide to offer in a future version of its product.

They are absolutely correct -- Apple is within its rights. The problem free software advocates have with the iPhone Developer Program isn't that Apple acts beyond its rights, it's that Apple's rights are the only ones considered, detailed, and protected by the terms of participation.

What next?

I've watched Apple too long to expect any significant number of iPhone developers and iPhone owners to call for big change. Some might; the rest will rationalize Apple's App Store policies and takedown notices, then resume business as usual. Only a tiny fraction might genuinely consider the benefits of a more open mobile device platform.

I would really, really like to see a top-notch free software-powered cell phone, both because I want one and because the majority of the public and the mobile developer community won't truly "get it" until they see it in action. Apple's mini-totalitarianism might shock some of them as it did last week, but they will have to see the better alternative in the flesh before they understand.

Maybe Android will be that free cell phone platform, maybe it will be OpenMoko, or even Nokia's open sourced Symbian -- I don't know. But the clock is ticking. And if it isn't here in the next year and a half, I may just ditch the "cell phone" model entirely, and start carrying a WiMax-enabled Maemo tablet running a SIP client instead.

In fact ... now that I've said it, maybe that's the correct choice right now.

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on Android, Apple, and phone phreedom

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Android, Apple, and phone phreedom

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 209.183.190.82] on October 02, 2008 11:06 PM
Regarding "are welcome to add that.", I'm not completely certain what you're expecting a business, let alone several, to say.

The options are: "third parties are welcome to add that" or "third parties are not welcome to add that".

Would you somehow prefer the latter?

Even big open source projects are rarely in position to state, definitively, the roadmap for upcoming releases. Businesses have even more problems in this area, particularly when they are dependent upon other firms. HTC can't say what Google will do, neither of them can say what T-Mobile will do, and none of those three can say what the other thirty-odd members of the Open Handset Alliance will do.

The other facet of "third parties are welcome to add that" is that Android is allowing competing software to be developed and distributed. Remember how the one iPhone mail app was rejected as being "too similar" to a built-in app? Android is open enough that there will even be multiple over-the-air markets (the core App Market, Handango, SlideME, to name three), let alone competing music players, mapping programs, and the like.

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Re: Android, Apple, and phone phreedom

Posted by: Nathan Willis on October 02, 2008 11:28 PM
I'm not completely certain what you're expecting a business, let alone several, to say.


I didn't "expect" anything from them at all. I reported what they did say.

The other facet of "third parties are welcome to add that" is that Android is allowing competing software to be developed and distributed. Remember how the one iPhone mail app was rejected as being "too similar" to a built-in app?


Indeed, I do. That's precisely the point made in the remainder of the piece.

Nate

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Android, Apple, and phone phreedom

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 90.184.61.228] on October 03, 2008 04:24 PM
You can install software on symbian phones as well so Android is not really introducing something new here.

Also, the Android stack is not open source yet as far as I know so let's see how useful it really is going to be.

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Android, Apple, and phone phreedom

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 212.95.96.62] on October 03, 2008 05:47 PM
When i hear "T-Mobile" i started feeling sick and ill. I really like the Apple iPhone but in germany you cannot get it without a contract with "T-Mobile" (they have the ultimative distribution rights for the market) so if you wanna have an iPhone you can have it with T-Mobile or forget the iPhone :( Android is something i donĀ“t know how to categorizes it, another "Google-Spy-Tool", a great experience? Who knows?
-----------------------------------------------
Anni Prever - http://www.a-p-c.de

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Android, Apple, and phone phreedom

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 129.120.33.133] on October 03, 2008 07:11 PM
Sheeple... Why don't people look at devices like the Nokia E71 and others that aren't feature locked, crippled bluetooth, provider locked, DRM'd, and expensive devices? Probably because they eat from the medias hand.

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Freedom for who? And is this freedom important?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 207.180.136.61] on October 05, 2008 03:29 AM
These aren't sheeple. They're people. Regular people. Only geeks and just a subset of geeks care whether the software they use is 'free as in speech' not just beer. The Free Software/Open Source movement puts principles before practicality. Regular folks want practicality before principles. It also helps if the principles are worth something to begin with. Far too often the movement seems to be filled with folks who just want to be able to get something for free. How many other industries is it ok to just outright DEMAND people work for free?

In other news, MSI is reporting that 4x as many Linux Netbooks are being returned as Windows ones. Turns out the public isn't liking Linux all that much. Its gotta suck when you can't even GIVE Linux away.

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Re: Freedom for who? And is this freedom important?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.84.196.212] on October 05, 2008 02:30 PM
<quote>The Free Software/Open Source movement puts principles before practicality. Regular folks want practicality before principles.</quote>

That is sort of true although I would say regular folks more often buy stuff just because of the latest ad campaign rather than the practicality of the product. Regardless, it does not follow that proprietary software must be practical just because it is unprincipled.
You may not value Free Software or Free Speech for that matter but that has no bearing on their value. Corporations in just about every industry DEMAND that workers work for free when they are salaried. That has nothing to do with Free Software. Most Free Software developers are paid and those that are not choose to offer their code back to the community in exchange for the vast resources the community gave them access to.

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Freedom FreedomFreedom, do you really want it?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.210.89.31] on October 07, 2008 01:32 AM
I think your missing it. I use linux when needed. I develop daily on windows. I work nightly on a mac. I carry and iphone, want to know why? It's simple really... I want a decent UI... Your Nokia sucks, as does just about every other smartphone out there. It's an oxymoron cause there's alot of stupid design. Have you ever tried to use the keyboard on a smartphone? Unless your a fairy, your fingers won't fir the keys... guaranteed. I am a geek, and I like open source software... that's why my jailbroken iphone runs cydia which is just a wrapper for one of the BEST programs EVER MADE, apt.
so.... I HAVE A TERMINAL TO MY BSD AND I KNOW HOW TO USE IT!!!

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Android, Apple, and phone phreedom

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.103.26.231] on October 31, 2008 03:05 AM
Last week's negative press must have finally reached a tipping point, because on October 1, Apple announced that it would do away with the existing NDA and replace it with something new in the coming two weeks. iPhone developers were thrilled at the news. http://www.lastautonews.com Auto news Businesses have even more problems in this area, particularly when they are dependent upon other firms. HTC can't say what Google will do, neither of them can say what T-Mobile will do, and none of those three can say what the other thirty-odd members of the Open Handset Alliance will do.

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