Editorial: Open Source Android Versus Closed Source iPhone, Windows Phone

We’ve heard the arguments before — seen them on tech blogs all around the internet, TruTower included — and it’s phenomenal how many tech geeks, myself included, get caught up in the rush as they move to defend the honor of their favorite mobile or computer OS. Simple discussions can escalate quickly to become all-out arguments.

Regardless of what anyone decides to write and in whatever forum, users will always have their reasons for choosing their favorite OS, whether it’s software, hardware, apps, or a combination of all of those. What many need to realize is that every single one of these reasons is personal, and they may or may not be as important to one person as they are to another.

Take the open source phenomenon that is Android for instance. When Google purchased Android, Inc. back in the day, it purchased what would later become the best bet to ousting the iPhone out of its top spot on the mobile market at the time, and that’s just what it did. Does it make it a better OS? Arguably, some might think so, but every single one of their reasons for believing so is personal, even if their personal reasons are true to a certain extent. Again, some features and aspects of an operating system are less or more important than they are to others.

I agree that having a fixed and single store can be a dangerous risk for the company or companies involved, in this case Apple and Microsoft. In both the cases of iTunes and Windows Phone Store, it can be said that having a closed operating system can open the doors to suppression of creativity and censorship. Either of these two companies can decline or accept an application based on their own internal merits, whether justified or unjustified, in ways that they might feel will benefit their OS or brand image the most.

However, there is an upside to having such a closed off app market. The most notable of these is the ability to deal a quick and nearly complete blow to malware, spyware, and piracy. In addition, the fragmentation levels of both iOS and Windows Phone are significantly lower than the fragmentation present in Android, even if this fragmentation does still technically exist as iOS and WP devices grow older and out of date.

The thing is, it’s about choice. I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve seen from Android users in particular who feel that Nokia made a wrong turn by supporting Windows Phone, but anyone who’s watched the mobile market growth for the past few months can see that this “wrong turn” has actually been a right turn for the company. Having Nokia supporting Android rather than Windows Phone does not increase choice, but rather decreases it, nevermind the risk to Nokia now that Samsung literally owns the Android market. More operating systems to a certain extent can only mean good things for customers.

Choice is what the Open Source movement was all about. Arguably, it can be said that GNU/Linux was one of the best things that ever happened to the Windows security model, as it forced Microsoft to make vital changes to their platform. Similarly, Linux has a lot to thank Windows and OSX for when it comes to user interfaces. Yes, Xerox fits in here, too, but we’re looking at progressive OS constructs. User interfaces and security aren’t all that both sides have to thank one another for, but those are a few examples. The point is, these changes came about due to competition, reiterating the fact that competition is good for all of us.

Anyone who’s watched the mobile market for the past few months can see that supporting Windows Phone was actually a right turn for Nokia.

Which brings us back to the open source versus closed debate. Yes, there is a risk with a single store as we find on iOS and WP; even on Android you’re “supposed” to use just the approved store rather than installing unapproved software. Doing so can have dire effects like the aforementioned malware issue as well as privacy breaches in some cases. Limiting the sources of applications by locking down the software is the single most effective means of increasing device security that there is, which is what Apple and Microsoft have done.

On the flip side, with open source, users are able to customize their experience quite a bit more, a higher number of applications can be installed since there’s no limit on app sources, and users have the ability to alter code to fit their individual needs, among other advantages.

Both sides have their valid points, and they’re tricky to resolve.

The fact is, though, that a majority of users are happy with a single store. Some may feel that Android is selling because it’s Android and open source, but the average user is buying an Android phone because of that Samsung logo on the device. These customers only use Google Play to download apps rather than load them from other sources. Even with Ubuntu, a Linux-based desktop OS soon to be mobile OS, only a handful of users actually install things from sources other than the common Ubuntu repositories.

Android itself was built on Linux, and the very idea behind Linux is the ability to offer alternatives. By its very nature, it exists as an alternative to OSX and Windows. As such, for Android users to say that other mobile operating systems should not be offered goes against the very idea behind its creation. The fact is, Android can and does compete well in the market already. There’s no need for its supporters to ask for others to be denied their choice, for example, by pressuring Nokia to make the switch, especially when Windows Phone is growing at a steady pace.

Again, the discussions will continue; it’s been happening for decades, and it’s not about to stop. If anything, with the launch of new competitors, the industry is going to keep getting more interesting. With the core Linux component — the very definition of “alternative OS” — present in Firefox OS, Ubuntu, and Android, here’s hoping if we can’t see eye to eye that all sides can at least learn to appreciate each OS’s contributions to the overall customer experience and healthy competition in the market place, whether the OS is open source or not.

  • Casey

    Uh oh, you’ve been reading the Verge comment sections again, haven’t you? :P jk

    Very valid points, though. The average user isn’t a techie, but it’s mostly techies that I see arguing about this kind of stuff. I’m an Android user and I’ve never agreed with Nokia switching to Android. It doesn’t make sense for the company right now, especially with as you said Samsung taking the lion’s share of the market.

    I don’t know if I’d say Linux is the definition of alternative OS though. I see a lot of Linux users, especially with the release of Windows 8, saying that it’s going to go mainstream, which does imply it I guess, but I think if Linux is an alternative, then OSX is. I guess I just don’t consider anything over 20% marketshare mainstream. Like Windows Phone isn’t mainstream yet. Just my two cents.

    • Edward Not From Twilight

      Um, any OS is an alternative to another OS. Like Windows is an alternative to OSX and Linux, etc. Windows is mainstream, and OSx is mainstream as well, though not as mainstream, so Linux would be the alternative here.

      • Ralphage

        Technically Linux is mainstream because Android is mainstream but we wont nitpck

        • iFan

          I wouldn’t insult Linux this way. Android may use the same kernel or whatever, but it’s not Linux. It’s what happens when Google tears Linux apart and puts adware, spyware, and their own annoying code into it.

    • Emmalynn

      Sorry but how is WP not mainstream?

      • Emmalynn

        Wait, nvm I got it.

  • Edward Not From Twilight

    Nice well thought out article. Now commense the arguments again! /s

    • iFan

      People always argue. I always ignore them :P

  • Ralphage

    Still love my closed OS over open source. Rather have security than over-the-top customization.

    • gail

      Android’s insecurity is being blown way out of proportion.

  • gail

    They all have their good points and bad points. But it’s still a lot of fun debating them!

  • Emmalynn

    Very true

  • iFan

    I love my security, so it’s iPhone or Windows Phone for me!

  • scotthumble

    I don’t really see an open source vs closed source debate in this article. The app store acceptance model isn’t necessarily related to the source code model. For that matter, being open source isn’t necessarily related to the platform that its running on. You can side load applications on numerous mobile platforms that use a closed source kernel just like you can install applications in Windows or OSX that are not signed with a developer certificate that uses a third party root CA to validate the chain of trust. Google has criteria for submitting to the Play store just like iOS and Windows 8 / WP7 / WP8. They just have varying policies that define the success criteria. Some would say that Apple’s submission criteria is too vague and involves more guess work. If you want public exposure, that is the mechanism that works best right now for all of these platforms. IMO, a discussion around open vs closed source needs to transcend the platform and the official distribution channels. But that may touch on something I’ve been thinking about lately. Does access to source code equate to an open distribution and access model? Most major software development companies contribute to open source communities and projects including Apple and Microsoft. But lets look at what Google did with Webkit. They chose to fork it into a separate rendering engine because the development community wasn’t progressing fast enough. When Google splits off from the de facto mobile and third party browser standard so that they can have more control, how does that impact the community of developers? In other words, when an open source contributor also represents a platform with a significant market share, they have the luxury of charting their own course but that leaves the rest of the community with little choice for which platform to support for their next project. Functionally speaking, open source used to be as much about community contributions as it has to do with whether you can access the source code. If one contributor obtains control over an open source project, is it still open source or is it nothing more than accessible code? At that point, is it functionally distinct from closed source with an available API for coding? I just wonder if anything is really as open source as it may seem or if they are all just iterations of the same thing. Small scale projects may still qualify but what about the big stuff? Google and other open source firms have been heavily involved in developing standards like HTML 5 but they are able to control how it is employed by controlling the rendering engine. If that’s true, is HTML 5 really a standard that represents the interests of technology at large? I don’t know the answers – just something I’ve been mulling over lately.

  • scotthumble

    I don’t really see an open source vs closed source debate in this article. The app store acceptance model isn’t necessarily related to the source code model. For that matter, being open source isn’t necessarily related to the platform that its running on. You can side load applications on numerous mobile platforms that use a closed source kernel just like you can install applications in Windows or OSX that are not signed with a developer certificate that uses a third party root CA to validate the chain of trust. Google has criteria for submitting to the Play store just like iOS and Windows 8 / WP7 / WP8. They just have varying policies that define the success criteria. Some would say that Apple’s submission criteria is too vague and involves more guess work. If you want public exposure, that is the mechanism that works best right now for all of these platforms. IMO, a discussion around open vs closed source needs to transcend the platform and the official distribution channels. But that may touch on something I’ve been thinking about lately. Does access to source code equate to an open distribution and access model? Most major software development companies contribute to open source communities and projects including Apple and Microsoft. But lets look at what Google did with Webkit. They chose to fork it into a separate rendering engine because the development community wasn’t progressing fast enough. When Google splits off from the de facto mobile and third party browser standard so that they can have more control, how does that impact the community of developers? In other words, when an open source contributor also represents a platform with a significant market share, they have the luxury of charting their own course but that leaves the rest of the community with little choice for which platform to support for their next project. Functionally speaking, open source is as much about community contributions as for whether you can access the source code. If one contributor obtains control over an open source project, is it still open source or is it nothing more than accessible code in a closed development loop? At that point, how does it functionally differ from closed source with an available API? I just wonder if anything is really as open source as it may seem or if they are all just iterations of the same thing for large scale projects. Sure, you can theoretically use that code for your own project but if you try to develop your own rendering engine from Blink, you will probably be the only one using it. Google and other open source firms have been heavily involved in developing standards like HTML 5 but they are able to control how it is employed by controlling the rendering engine. If that’s true, is HTML 5 really a standard that represents the interests of technology at large? Skinning Android is not the same thing as modifying the kernel. But many seem to equate open source to changing the look and feel of the underlying kernel. Apple and Microsoft could easily release an API that provides developers with the same capabilities without releasing the source code for their kernel. They choose not to because they believe that it will negatively impact the end user experience. They may or may not be right but it certainly has its own benefits. If the debate has less to do with source code accessibility and more to do with whether the platform includes support for custom skins and more lenient app acceptance criteria, then we need to change the language that we are using for the debate. If anything, open source means that Google doesn’t need to develop and release an API for that capability but that is the only major difference. God knows that Google doesn’t release all of their code and they refuse to release an extensive API for many of their web services. Apparently, Microsoft was able to do more with the YouTube API than what they expected even though it didn’t include support for advertisements. The Google Maps on Windows Phone 8 fiasco is another example of how they tried to use Webkit as a justification for restricting access for Windows Phone users. That could be an example of the use of an open source rendering engine to restrict services for a competitor even though the browser in question fully supports HTML 5. That sounds anti-competitive in the legal sense of the word. I don’t blame them for competing but these tactics seem underhanded and not within the spirit of the community that spawned open source to begin with.