Talking the walk: Andy Rubin on openness

anonymous-android-300x264PC Mag had a very interesting interview with Google’s VP of Engineering, Andy Rubin. It is hard to find anyone in the industry today with more impressive mobile tech credentials than Rubin. He founded and created Android before it was acquired by Google and was a key player involved in creating the Sidekick for Danger.

However, during the interview I kept getting the sense that he knew what he should say to some very direct questions about the nature of Android’s openness to quell user concerns, but he just couldn’t get his mouth to form the sounds. He sure does talk a lot about open source, but yet he walks like a carrier flunkie.

Take this interesting exchange for example…

People have been saying that the freedom of Android has basically meant that the carriers are free to screw the consumers.

If I were to release an operating system that I claimed was open and that forced everybody to make [phones] all look the same and all support very narrow features and functionality, the platform wouldn't win. It wouldn't win because the OEMs have a lot of value to bring and the carriers have a lot of value to bring, and they need a vehicle by which to put their interesting differentiating features on these things. Every phone shouldn't look like every other phone. If that was the case there would just be one SKU, right? The whole idea here is just to figure out what consumers want, build phones and tailor them to what consumers want.

OK Andy, yes we see what you did there…bad, bad Apple. However, the question was not about how Apple is lame, but about what Google really means by freedom. By the end he gets to it, and to him it seems that freedom means that users have the freedom to have many different phone choices…yet it doesn’t include giving users the ability to adjust their phone to suit them best.

Carriers tailor phones to customers, but customers can’t tailor phones to themselves. It leaves all the freedom and creativity in the hands of the vendors and carriers, making them sort of like a Mobile Big Brother. Instead of having one Apple saying “We know what’s good for you” we have 10 Android vendors saying “We know what’s good for you.” That may be better than the Apple model and it might not be; it might even be good for consumers (too much choice can be a bad thing); however, what it is not is open source. To say it is is like flattening a loaf of wonder bread, pouring ketchup on it, and calling it a pizza. That simply does not work…unless you are under 7 years of age.

A bit later the interviewer, Sascha Segan, goes back to that same idea, even more directly:

But when you say "you've put it in the hands of the community," what people in the U.S. frequently hear is "you've put it in the hands of the wireless carriers."

Yes and no. It's always going to be like that. I'm not trying to be a wireless carrier, I'm not trying to assert authority over the wireless operators, but I think it's kind of like that 1.5 and 1.6 versus 2.2 scenario. I think over time they'll learn what is good business and what is bad business. Google is a big believer in openness and openness means customization. There's a difference between customization and personalization. Personalization is something the consumer does, customization is something an OEM or operator does. And they have to find the right balance there.

So let me get this straight. Google is basically standing back and assuming that the carriers will one fine day suddenly wake up and decide to do what is best for their consumers? That’s like when your Dad told you that when he grows up, the bully that just pulled your pants off over your head will feel like a real troglodyte over this. Andy, how stupid is you?

As for the fine line between personalization and customization, I don’t accept that the former belongs to the user and the latter to the carrier. Rather both belong to the users; you just need more knowledge in order to customize than you do to personalize. Personalization is making the screen font larger and changing wallpaper, while customization is making serious changes to the way the device operates. Should every user do both? No, but users should have the option of doing both, and let things fall where they will.

Lastly, after making a long case for the fact that there should be billions of different flavors of phones available for billions of different kinds of users, the interviewer brings up Windows Phone 7. Rubin has this to say:

I think the screen shots I've seen are interesting, but look, the world doesn't need another platform. Android is free and open; I think the only reason you create another platform is for political reasons. Why doesn't the whole world run with [Android]? They don't like the people who developed, or "not invented here," but [Android] is a successful, complete, vertically integrated free platform. I encourage everybody to use it, but I'm also not under the impression that everybody will use it, which is a good thing, because competition is good for the consumer and if somebody has an an idea for a feature or a piece of functionality in their platform and Android doesn't do it, great. I think it's good to have the benefit of choice, but in the end I don't think the world needs another platform.

Wow, Andy. That one actually made my eyes cross. So what you are saying is that the world needs endless variety, except there is no need for another OS; Android has perfected the concept of a mobile OS, so there is no need for more. Of course, competition is good. Andy wants competition, but no new OS. The world should have the benefit of choice, as long as they can choose between Android and Android.

I would hesitate to remind Mr. Rubin that technically Windows Phone 7 is not a new OS, but just a retread of a very old one…and that Android is the youngest of the major mobile operating systems. If there is no need for a new OS now, then there wasn’t a real need for one before he created Android.

After all, he can admit that there might be features that Android doesn’t have while still refusing to accept the fact that another OS may have a place in the market. Wasn’t Android created because there were features that the other OSs didn’t have? Of course that is likely irrelevant, since he seems to actually believe that despite everything, the only reason everyone doesn’t use Android is that they have it in for Google. Really?

If Andy Rubin and Steve Jobs ever have children together, they will give birth to Idi Amin.

You may try to talk the talk of open source, Mr. Rubin, but you just end up talking the walk. All swagger, no open source substance and apparently no clear understanding of what open source was intended to be by its creators.

[PC Mag]
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Zealot Benmergui

Zealot is a former contributing editor at Pocketables.