Android Market, retrieved from android.com

Watch out there, folks.  Though to some the open App Marketplace may seem like the best thing ever, to others it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen (or at least it allows for a significant level of creepiness).  For example, the SMS Secret Replicator Andriod App, created by DLP Mobile, forwards all text messages from the cell phone on which the app is installed to another phone of the downloader’s choosing.  If that’s not creepy enough, once the app is installed, it leaves no trace of its existence on the phone, so there is no way of knowing it is present on the device.

One aspect that clearly differentiates the Android Market from the Apple App Store is the idea of an open market to which any developer is welcome and encouraged to upload a custom-made application.  However, in late October of this year, Google initially approved the SMS Secret Replicator app, and then removed the application from the Andriod market just 18 hours later claiming it “violate[d] the Android Market Content Policy.”

iPhone Apps, retrieved from apple.com

Being a Palm Pre user myself, I am not extremely familiar with the unlimited world of mobile applications.  However, while I have explored the facilities of an iPhone on multiple occasions, my knowledge of Android phones is quite limited, so I decided to speak to a close friend about her Droid experience.

Though my friend initially desired an iPhone, her current wireless carrier was Verizon, so she settled on an Android device as her first smartphone.  After her first month as an Android owner, she loves her “sleek and user friendly” phone with great apps and she doesn’t “feel like [she’s] missing out on anything the iPhone has to offer.”  Though she was unaware of the ability of any developer “to easily publish and distribute their applications directly to users of Andriod-compatible phones” after paying a $25 registration fee (as stated on the log in screen of the Android Market), she likes that it allows for more selection and choice, but does not think that anyone should have access to personal information such as “your location, biographical information and other private information” through certain applications.

Upon hearing of the SMS Secret Replicator for the first time, her reaction was, “Umm…does that exist? Cause that is really creepy. …I don’t think an app like that should exist.”

SMS Secret Replicator Application, retrieved from hothardware.com

Exactly, this Application should not exist, and thanks to two specific aspects of the Android Market Developer Distribution Agreement, it has been suspended.  Section 4.3 begins “You agree that if you use the Market to distribute Products, you will protect the privacy and legal rights of users….If your Product stores personal or sensitive information provided by users, it must do so securely and only for as long as it is needed.”  While personal or sensitive information usually refers to items more like passwords or medical information, I believe it is safe to say that individuals tend to send personal or sensitive information in text messages when they are under the impression that they are aware of exactly who will be receiving that information.

Section 7.2 Addresses Google Takedowns – “While Google does not intend, and does not undertake, to monitor the Products or their content, if Google is notified by you or otherwise becomes aware and determines in its sole discretion that a Product or any portion thereof or your Brand Features…(e) may create liability for Google or Authorized Carriers…(g) violates the terms of this Agreement or the Market Content Policy for Developers…Goodle may remove the Product from the Market or reclassify the Product at its sole discretion.  Google reserves the right to suspend and/or bar any Developer from the Market at its sole discretion.”  Essentially, the SMS Secret Replicator Application had the potential to create liability for Google and violated the privacy of users, which, in turn, is a violation of the terms of the Agreement.

Though this specific application has been banned, the thought that if I buy an Android phone, someone can potentially pick up my phone if I leave it unattended and quickly download an application that will forward all of my text messages to their phone is terrifying.  So don’t leave your Android on a table by your “friend” while you run to the restroom.  With an ever-expanding app market, the next thing you know, every photo you take with your cell phone camera will wind up on your mom’s computer screen in the middle of the family kitchen.

It appears that within the past few weeks the two previously mentioned app purchasing locations (the Android Market and the Apple App Store) are moving closer to one another in terms of rules and regulations.  While Google has advertised its Android Market as a place where anyone can contribute their original idea for an app, it has had to start cracking down on developers who have taken this liberty one step too far.  On the flip side, previously known for it’s rather strict censorship rules when it came to allowing developers to use certain development tools when creating an app for an Apple device, Apple received a great deal of ridicule for rejecting apps on ridiculous platforms.  The company has recently decided to relax its restrictions on the use of these development tools, giving developers more flexibility, and to publish the App Store Review Guidelines to improve transparency.  Unfortunately, many issues with these guidelines have been recognized – especially by developers.

Google Voice for Mobile

As part of this new, relaxed Apple restrictions, as of today, the Google Voice app has been approved for the iPhone.  This is a pretty big deal because between when Google submitted the application to Apple over 16 months ago and today, the FCC had to step in to ask whether Apple and AT&T were trying to prevent Google’s services from competing with their already built-in features (including making voice calls from the cellular device, sending text messages, checking voicemail, etc.). Shall we jump back in class a few months to the topic of Net Neutrality?

As of today, the Google Voice app can be downloaded for free on the iPhone. The Google Voice mobile app has already been available on Android phones and Blackberry phones for a few months.

Google Voice for iPhone, retrieved from blogsdna.com

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Like the previous blogger, I too am in love with my Droid. He is a Droid X. His name is Yeste (after the most famous swordmaker in all of Florin), and he runs Verizon/Motorola’s official OTA release of Froyo (Android 2.2) with Motorola’s MotoBlur skin on top of it. Motorola is a proud member of the “Open Handset Alliance” which is a group of 78 tech companies that seek to propagate Google’s open-source mobile operating system, “Android”. Some of its members are wireless distributors seeking wider access to smart phones, others are phone manufacturers looking to decrease some of its costs, others are developers excited about a popular mobile platform with a low bar for entry. All of them are in the business of technological advancements. All of them are in the business of making money. Many of them are competitors.

Google has set a tone of openness not entirely unlike that in GNU’s copyleft standards, but that tone ends at the conveyance of Android. As the leading producers of Android handsets, Motorola and HTC are the most capable of upholding the attitude of openness begun by Google. Motorola and HTC add the custom skins “MotoBlur” and “Sense UI” respectively  to Google’s stock form of Android, a practice Google adamantly defends, and one clearly aligned with GNU’s policy of allowing modification and redistribution (not that GNU’s rules apply to Android).

HTC has been moderately good about maintaining openness when conveying Android. Though they’ve added Sense, it’s possible to turn off most of it’s features and return to stock Android. Users seeking superuser access will still need to “root” their phones in order to load new firmware, but HTC hasn’t done much to prevent that. In fact, it’s become as easy as downloading an app to root HTC’s phones.

Motorola on the other hand, has shown a proclivity towards limitations on this openness. In order to remove MotoBlur, one must root one’s Motorola phone.  While rooting the Droid X and Droid 2 is possible, it is very difficult in comparison to other Android phones due to Motorola’s inclusion of a “Locked Bootloader” which, though it doesn’t “brick” the phone, takes very strong measures to prevent rooting. This ardent anti-circumvention measure would unquestionably violate copyleft standards, if they applied, and as a result, lowers the bar for openness among members of the Open Handset Alliance.

So what accounts for the difference between Motorola and believers in copyleft? Yes, Motorola is in the business of making money, but profit is not something the GPL disdains, indeed it embraces it by clarifying its definition of “free” as regarding freedom (which MotoBlur lacks) rather than price (which Motorola is happy to include). As the leading manufacturer of handsets, it can’t be that Motorola lacks interest in technological progress. Indeed, many consider Motorola’s Droid to be the first real “iPod Killer.”

Perhaps it’s the desire to beat the competition at either of these factors that drives Motorola’s desire to lock things down. While GNU supports gaining from modifications on open software, it doesn’t appear to support competitive enterprising. While GNU supports technological progress, that is not its primary tenant. Motorola’s desire, first, to lead the way rather than to contribute primarily to the customization of the Android platform is what pushes it so far away from the copyleft standard. Motorola doesn’t seem to want us to truly own the software on our phones.

I’m very happy with my MotoBlur-running Droid X, and even when given the warranty-preserving options of downloading MotoBlur-replacing apps like Launcher Pro or Handcent SMS, I’ve stuck with Motorola’s stock apps. I may not be better off for that, but I’m happy with those functions as they are. I don’t really need free tethering or mobile hotspot capabilities. With the ability to tether via Bluetooth to my MacBook Pro which can use its Airport as a hotspot, I’m satisfied. I don’t plan to root any time soon. Having said that, every once in a while I come across a cool app that says “requires root,” and wish that that wasn’t necessary. None of the apps have been worth voiding my warranty or taking the chance that I’ll brick my phone by screwing up the complicated process of circumventing eFuse, nor have they even been worth remembering. But as members of an Open Handset Alliance, perhaps Motorola should still consider democratizing superuser access.

After all, is there any good to the consumer from such a locked-down device?

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Free Software has pushed itself into the spotlight with Mozilla Firefox and Linux.  Businesses, while wary of its philosophy, are beginning to understand its usefulness.  Google, notably, has tried to work closely with the open source community, as both an user and a contributor.

One of their most recent projects, the Android operating system for mobile phones, was built by Google and then released under the Apache license to the open source community.  Android was initially met with some controversy, especially given its licensing.  Instead of licensing under GPL, Google chose the Apache license, which allows for proprietary modifications be made to Android, so long as the copyright notice and disclaimer are preserved.  Android was released in Q4 2008 and Google has since benefited from the work of programmers, who have developed ‘mods’ aiming to increasing Android’s functionality.

However, on September 25th of this year, one of the Android community’s most prominent ‘modders,’ Steve Kondik, received a Cease and Desist letter from Google.  Steve Kondik had been distributing a ROM called Cyanogen, which was built from the Android framework.  The problem lay not in that Kondik was distributing Android, which was open source, but that he was distributing Google’s core, but proprietary, apps, Gmail, Google Maps, etc.  These apps were part of the “Google Experience” phones and were licensed through the phone manufacturers.  Therefore, while Cyanogen could be continued to be developed and distributed, Google’s apps would need to be removed and anyone who installed Cyanogen would be left without them.  Normally, this would be a minor issue.  However, Google’s apps were central to the Android experience, with the average user expecting  Google’s apps to come baked in.  Without them, any development would be crippled.

Since, Google has experienced a tremendous backlash on the Android community.  While everyone assents to Google’s legal right and its self interest (Google, in a blog post responding to the controversy, has stated that, ”Unauthorized distribution of this software harms us just like it would any other business, even if it’s done with the best of intentions.”), many insist that leaving developers such as Kondik alone is better for everyone, especially Google’s reputation among developers.

This issue has clarified the important difference between free software and open source.  And while this issue may have hurt Google’s reputation or even dampened developer enthusiasm, it is important to remember that mobile networks remain extremely closed and manufacturers, as they tentatively take steps towards an open source platform, are another key part of innovation.  Google’s demonstration of its willingness to protect proprietary software on this open system may ensure that more devices are developed for Android, thus increasing its relevance and hopefully its market share.

The resolution to this particular story has been predominantly positive.  Developers, including Cyanogen, have formed the Open Android Alliance, which is dedicated to developing open source alternatives to Google’s primary applications.  Kondik, himself, blogged on the Cyanogen site that ”[a] lot of people are helping to work many of these issues out, notably the guys from Google (Dan and JBQ) who manage the open-source project.”

Given the community of developers and Google’s private interests, conflicts were bound to happen.  Yet, the compromise that Google has struck – making its rights clear while working the community – seems to be the right way forward.  Android will continue to be developed in ways outside of Google’s control, but will nonetheless increase user usage of the internet and, by extension, Google’s services.  And the ordinary customers, outside of the open source community, who have never heard of Android and know of ‘open source’ only as a catch phrase, will not care, so long as Android remains a good user experience.  As stated in our Two Bits reading, “Giving away the Communicator source code in 1998 endeared Netscape to geeks and confused investors; it was ignored by customers.”