January 30, 2010

The broken promise of Android

Posted in Digital Freedom, Digital Lifestyle at 00:22 by frifan

Google Android is a free and open source operating system for mobile Internet devices. The promise of Android is freedom over your device, which allows you to use the software and services you want. No longer can the operators, service providers or anyone else decide what you do with your device. Nor can they dictate which services to allow and charge extra for them. You can install the applications you want, even if you made them yourself. The operators only provide the data communication service, which brings me to the subject of net neutrality, but that I leave for another post.

By the end of summer last year I was in the process of buying an Android phone. I call it a process as I try to make a market survey to make the best possible choice for me. All I had heard and read about the Android platform made me believe that it held the most promise for the future. It was already then very flexible and offered a lot of functionality, but the icing on the cake was, for me, that it was open. I believe very strongly in open source, or FOSS, and think it will push proprietary software into niche markets. Since I had already decided on the android operating system, the main focus was on the hardware. It basically boiled down to two choices. Samsung Galaxy or HTC Hero. The former has better hardware specifications, but the latter had a more smooth user interface. As I believed in the future of Android I wanted to see its evolution unmodified. I don’t want anyone to disguise the true Android experience and put a layer on top of it, which would only serve to delay upgrades to newer versions. Therefore I went with the Samsung Galaxy and bought it from Germany where it was a full €150 cheaper than in Sweden.

I really like the phone. Sure there are some quirks and it’s not the fastest. The user interface sometimes lags terribly, but for the most part it works wonderfully. By the end of the year the next version (1.6) of Android appeared, then another just before Christmas (2.0) and now we’re seeing version 2.1 arrive. In the meantime Samsung decided to not upgrade the phone! I refused to believe it for a while, but more and more rumors suggested that Samsung had chosen to not to upgrade their first models and instead bring new ones to the market [1].

I did think of this as a possibility, but as it was open source I feared not. Because open source means that you always have access to the software free of charge. Then I discovered that the promise, that was Android, was a broken one. Sure, the Android operating system was still open, but the problem is the device drivers. The operating system relies on device drivers to talk to the hardware. These are not part of Android itself, but required to access the hardware capabilities of the underlying hardware. Samsung has chosen to use another WiFi chip than other manufacturers and, also, another camera (5 Mega pixel). While most of the other hardware was the same as other manufacturers were using, these two examples were exclusive to the Samsung Galaxy. If you cannot upgrade the operating system, then you cannot use the new features and the new class of applications that use them. Because if the open source nature of Android, it didn’t take long before someone created an upgrade for the cellphone [2][3]. Unfortunately you had to crack the phone to install it. An operation which voids your warranty. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of the manufacturers releasing any device drivers under open source and the newer version of Android requires updates to the device drivers. Much of the hardware is the same as in other phones that have received an upgrade and those updated device drivers can be used by Samsung Galaxy too, but the device drivers for hardware that is exclusive to the phone doesn’t have any updates. It is, in my experience, usually a simple task to update the device drivers, but writing new ones is a huge task. As Samsung won’t release the device drivers as open source, then no-one can help them do the update, and believe me people would help them for free. This all leaves the exclusive parts of your phone inaccessible after the upgrade and that is where the promise of Android breaks down. Also, the bits and pieces of Android that made it into the Linux kernel have now fallen out again[4] and without a good reason to why Google needs a fork[5].

H Online has a nice summary of the issue[6], so far. There are some differences to how Google and the main Linux kernel handle some things[8][9], but I believe most reasons to be historic and that it will work itself out if only Google wishes it to[7].

My advice to you: Buy an Android cellphone! Just NOT from Samsung, because they aren’t serious about Android and won’t upgrade the software. Hey, I’m talking from experience here.

[1] Samsung’s Galaxy stuck in history
[2] Utvecklare tar saken i egna händer – Android 2.0 till Galaxy i7500 (Swedish only)
[3] Samsung I7500 mustymod ROM (Android 2.0), Android 2.0 (Eclair) for Samsung Galaxy
[4] Android code removed from Linux kernel
[5] Android and the Linux Kernel Community
[6] Android versus Linux?
[7] KS2009: How Google uses Linux
[8] Wakelocks and the embedded problem
[9] See, NOW it makes sense…


1 Comment »

  1. daniela said,

    I concur

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