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Android isn't freedom, because Google is closed

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Android isn't freedom, because Google is closed
We've seen a lot of comments recently on various Apple-related articles with commenters belittling the Apple option because they are hawking the ideology that open-source is the "ultimate freedom". And, we would have to agree that open-source is the ultimate meaning of freedom, but the trouble is that those who would push the open-source ideology often incorrectly apply it to Google Android.

As I have written about at length recently, Google Android should not be confused with the open-source base of Android itself. If your argument is that you don't want to be at the mercy of a multi-billion dollar corporate entity, then I would hope you aren't using a Google Android device, because if you are, you're something of a hypocrite. Look, I love Android, and I use it as my primary operating system with my Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 (soon to be Nexus 5 and Nexus 10 (2013) whenever Google actually puts out the new devices), but the idea that Android as we know it is open-source and the ultimate freedom is absurd. 

The Android base is open-source insofar as the code is available, but it certainly isn't developed in the open. What draws most of us to Android are the Google services layer, which are not open at all, and actually allow Google to control a huge amount of the Android experience. I chose the Google life because the Google life does everything that I want and need in my tech world without many downsides. But, I have no misconceptions that I have "ultimate freedom" with the choices that I have made. Sure, I could choose to leave Google and take all of my data to another service. It would be annoying, but it would be possible. Just as if I were using Apple's iOS or Microsoft's Windows Phone, I could say the same. Sure, it would be annoying, but I could choose to move to another platform and another device. 

And, that's really the biggest problem with the absurd ideologues shouting that "Android is freedom". Android is not freedom, Android is just one more choice in the ecosystem and choice is the ultimate freedom. But, even if Android didn't exist, there would still be choice. When Apple first launched its iPhone in 2007, it wasn't the only option in the smartphone market. Users could easily choose to go with a BlackBerry device, a Windows Mobile device, or even a Symbian handset. Apple won market share because it brought a better multitouch controls and a better user experience to the smartphone market. Since then, Android has taken back that market share from Apple with its variety of options in low-end and high-end devices, plus its huge app ecosystem and amazingly customizable platform. Android offered the ease of use for less tech-savvy users (with customizations like TouchWiz), as well as offering the fully customizable options that power users might want. But, with each of those customizations you are not only putting yourselves in the hands of Google, but in the hands of other huge international corporations like Samsung. 


Imagine that the only option on the market were Android. That would mean you would have to be at the mercy of Android apps, which offer a huge number of options, but certainly not everything. Beyond that, you would have to be sure to be using the right apps or understand what you need to be running in order to make everything sync properly with your computer. Obviously, most of us here at PhoneArena know how to do that, but as I've tried to impress before, we are the tech elite. We do not represent the majority of end users.

We all have friends and family who need help with their technology because they either can't learn or refuse to learn how to deal with the new options available. While the best option for us may be Android, because we can understand and handle the user learning curve associated with that choice, sometime we will suggest Apple products to our loved ones, because we don't want to have to take on the burden of being tech support for all of those people. 

I know that personally, it was early in my college career that I decided that if anyone asked me if I knew about computers, I would reply, "My expertise is in hot cereals... cream of wheat, farina, oatmeal, etc..." because it eventually became too much to be constantly asked for help. If I had given in to every request for tech support, it would have driven me mad, and it would have made me lose a number of friends and alienate some family members. On the other side of the spectrum, I could just suggest that those who didn't care at all to learn anything would choose devices that offered the best support. 

And, really support is the key here. Anyone who has had problems with an Android device knows that the best source for support is other Android users. That can be a good system, but for those without much technical knowledge (especially in the ability to effectively search for and find help), it is best to have a good customer support system. Google has been getting better with its tech support recently, but it is still nowhere near as easy to get help with a Google device as it is with Apple, Microsoft, or even Amazon. And, while Amazon is technically Android, it is the one offshoot of Android that is separate from Google and actually has a reasonable market share (everywhere outside of China, Russia, and India where non-Google Android devices are bigger.)

Amazon has gotten a ton better in its support system with its Mayday feature in the newest Kindle Fire devices. Apple has always been top notch with its support (assuming you live near an actual Apple store. And, Microsoft has been solid with its support especially since it started opening its own stores. But, on the Android side of things, you have had to hope that you had good support from either your manufacturer (Samsung, HTC, etc), or deal with your carrier support (which could be troublesome depending on what carrier you're on). Google has been getting better very quickly about offering real human support for users, but that certainly doesn't cover the entire ecosystem. 

The Google Layer

Beyond the support question, is the more thorny issue of whether or not Android is really "open". Sure, Android does allow for the most customization out of any mobile platform, but customization options are a choice. Some users don't want or need to have those options, and we can't ignore those users. Cusomization options doesn't mean that a platform is "open", neither do options to sideload apps, or choose alternate default apps. If we take a half-step outside of the mobile world, Windows allows for "sideloading" apps (defined as installing apps from any source, not just an authorized store), and Windows allows for a solid amount of customization. No one who knows anything about computers would claim that Windows is an "open" platform. So, it's hard to understand why so many try to claim the same for Android. 

Sure, Android is "open" insofar as you can take the source code and build a modified version of the code if you'd like, but the development process itself is not open at all, the code is simply released when Google says it is done. And, the thing is that just because that is possible to modify the code doesn't mean much when the vast majority of the ecosystem uses the Google code and builds software in order to get Google certification and therefore get access to Google Apps and the Google Play Store. The Google layer of services is a huge part of what we consider to be "Android" even though it really isn't a natural part of the platform. It is Google's fork of the platform. And, once you're in that ecosystem, you are at the mercy of Google (a multi-billion dollar corporation). I personally trust Google with all of my data, but I have no misconceptions that I'm entrusting my data to an empathetic compatriot. 

Google's corporate ethos means that it has a business reason to protect your data and your identity, but I see no reason why you should assume that being in Google's world means that you have stumbled upon the "ultimate freedom of open source". Google adheres to admirable ethics of open source insofar as it leaves the base of some of its products in open source (although it doesn't develop in the open), but once you choose to live in the Google Android world, you are choosing you give your user experience over to Google as well as possibly Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG or other manufacturers. 

If you are a power user, you can often root your device and change your experience, but the vast majority of users are not comfortable doing that, which means that Google Android locks those users in to a specific user experience just like any other platform locks you into an Apple experience, or Microsoft experience, or BlackBerry experience. There may be a bit more wiggle room with Google with alternate launchers and themes, but it is still just one choice option among many. If Google changes something in the Play services layer, you have no choice in that, you simply have to accept the changes. If Google decides to remove a service, you have to try to find an alternative (which again is more likely to happen in Android, but the point still stands.) 

Also, I don't like the fallback onto the rooting argument, because Apple users have options to jailbreak their devices and change the user experience as well. That level of power-user modification isn't the sole property of Android.


Android in its theoretical pure form is the ultimate freedom and the ultimate option of choice. But, theory doesn't really help anyone in the real world because most of us don't use pure Android, we use Google's Android. In the real world, if you want the best customer support, you're not likely to find it in the Android ecosystem. If you're looking for specific productivity apps like OmniFocus, you're not going to find it on Android. If you're looking for the best integration of Microsoft services, you won't find it on Android. So, how exactly is Android the "ultimate freedom"? 

Android is a big piece of freedom, because it adds the most options of choice out of any platform on the market. But, we really can't get confused between the Android open-source base, and the Google services that we all love and need that exist on top of Android. The Google layer is closed, and offers no choice apart from the inherent choice available from one more option on the market. The honest truth is that many people don't want that Google option even when it is mixed with Samsung, HTC, or other customizations. Choice is choice, and having options aside from Android only adds to the freedom of consumers. It doesn't work against consumer freedom simply because the consumer doesn't choose what you may deem to be the most "open" option.

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