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present in Android, even if this fragmentation does still technically exist as iOS and WP devices grow older and out of date.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.