Why Google Should Lock Down Android

There’s been a lot of buzz over the last year or so about google closing up parts of it’s ostensibly open source operating system. The debate so far has mostly been about whether or not Android is truly open or not, but this weekend’s editorial over at engadget has rightly pointed out that perhaps a more pertinent question would be should Android be truly open.

The big difference between Android and other open source software is that it’s in everyday use by millions of people who aren’t geeks. Operating systems like Ubuntu and the other Linux flavours are still – despite what their marketing people will tell you – largely the preserve of tech savy nerds. When you get an operating system for free you are prepared to tolerate a few rough edges and a bit of tinkering under the bonnet and messing with the command line in exchange for the zero price and the freedom to customize.

Although Android is open source users do not get it for free, they buy a mobile device that runs on Android. Users expectations are therefore justifiably higher than they would be had they chosen to download it for free. They want a polished, intuitive user experience and they will without a shadow of a doubt compare their experience with that of iPhone users.

Android can deliver a user experience that at least matches iOS, but it can – and regularly does – deliver an atrocious experience that leaves users wishing that they had bought an iPhone. This wildly differing user experience isn’t directly Google’s fault but it is very much their problem.  By allowing anyone who wants to make android phones do so Google has taken the market by storm, but it’s also abdicated responsibility for the perceived quality of it’s product to hardware makers and networks.

You only have to compare an unlocked HTC desire to a network locked Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 to see an example of this problem. Both have solid hardware and broadly similar specs and both were launched as high end Android smart phones, as an average consumer you would be forgiven for expecting a similar user experience.

If you’d bought the unlocked Desire you would probably be very pleased with it, it’s quick, responsive and intuitive to use. If you had the Xperia X10 on certain networks you would be less likely to be so pleased. The skin that SE put on top of Android has not been well received and some networks bolted on their own bloat ware bonus software making the overall experience poor.

In short, Android is a good OS but the customisation done by manufacturers and networks can leave consumers with very different views on the Android brand.

So should Google lock Android down? Should they place restrictions on what manufacturers and networks can do with it?  In my view the answer is yes. If Google want Android to deliver the consistently good experience it’s capable of they must stop sub par handsets from finding their way in to consumers’ pockets.

In this respect Microsoft have actually got the jump on Google. Windows Phone 7 has a minimum hardware spec that ensures slow,  underpowered handsets just don’t get made.

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