In the few weeks I have owned a smartphone (a Kyocera Zio with Android), I've been fascinated to see how many non-technical users are experiencing the power of open source for the first time.
Between the proliferation of free and inexpensive apps in the Android Market and the numerous mobile companies offering their own Android phones, it's hard to believe it all started with a single G1 phone.
(Yes, I remember the Trolltech Greenphone and other predecessors, but nevertheless, a tip of the hat to Google for getting Android onto 19%—perhaps 20% before I finish typing this parenthetical disclaimer—of all smartphones.)
An open source ecosystem
As a member of the species Homo cheapskatus1, I suspect that I am not even within the same genus of consumer who purchases an iPhone or Nexus One. But thanks to an open source operating system like Android, smartphones are now available all along the spectrum from utility to luxury. That's because Android isn't limited to exclusive installation on, say, iProducts. Instead, an Android build can be produced for appropriate hardware created by any manufacturer: Motorolla, Kyocera, Nokia, etc.
While there are drawbacks to running software on many different brands and types of hardware—interoperability concerns, bugs, and the like—these are far outweighed by the ability to innovate across phone carriers and hardware manufacturers. Of course, newer low-end or older high-end models may lack features or updates that are standard on their pricier or more widely used cousins. I'd much prefer Froyo over the Donut my newly released Zio is running, but I can wait for my carrier (Cricket) to provide the updated version automatically. Or check daily to see if it's been rooted or custom ROM'd yet, which will open the gates to the full array of open source goodness and extend the phone's life substantially. (The software may be open source, but the hardware often requires some creative maneuvering to access it. Maybe Santa will bring me a hacker by Christmas.)
I can also have darned near any application I want, because there are no iPolice guarding the gates of the Android Market. When Skype gave Verizon Android users exclusive access to their popular low-cost Internet calling app, Fring seized the opportunity to acquire a chunk of Skype's marketshare and released its own competing app FringOut to Android phones on every carrier. And not even the Android Market is free to monopolize; there are now alternative app markets, so I have choices there too.
Because open source draws developers, more than 57% of Android apps are free. (The figure is 28% for the iPhone's app store and lower for other smartphones.) And even the paid apps on Android are significantly more affordable, averaging $3.29 compared to the iPhone's $4.01 and Blackberry's $6.97. Many savvy app developers offer a useful “lite” version of their best applications for free, with the option to buy a full paid version for $1.99 - $3.99. I have found many of the lite versions satisfy the need I had, but they function so well and have such innovative paid features that I strongly consider upgrading. (And I've already told you what a tightwad I am.)
Control vs. choice
Fundamentally, closed smartphones are about tight control over the platform, user, and apps, while open smartphones are about giving users maximum choice, trusting meritocracy, and implementing democratic means of quality control.
In the iPhone app store, users know they can expect a certain Apple-approved standard for any app they download. At the same time, their purchases are limited by what Apple deems suitable (or profitable) for its store. If Apple decides to make a few bucks by restricting the right to sell a particular type of application, you're unlikely to find a Skype-alternative like FringOut anywhere in the iPhone store. Many other closed smartphone application stores operate similarly.
In the Android market(s), users find a plethora of application choices, some better than others. With user ratings, filtering by rating, and user comments, it's usually simple to tell what applications are worthwhile. There's also a strong connection to the developers, who often respond to comments, provide basic tech support, and address bugs quickly.
The debate continues
While the arguments between control- and choice-advocates have raged longer than any Usenet flamewar, this may be the first time that the average non-technical user has been drawn in.
And it seems that many prefer choice. Android is now the fastest growing smartphone platform, slated to overtake the iPhone by 2011.
When “open” is also user- and contributor-friendly, in a highly profitable market with significant growth potential, it's a formidable opponent.