My First Android Experience: intriguing, extremely encouraging but a bit disappointing

I recently got my hands on a Nexus One, which believe it or not is my first Android-based phone. I’ve been trying to acquire an N1 for quite some time now, so after finally tracking an AT&T version down it quite simply couldn’t ship fast enough. By the time it finally arrived I was champing at the bit. I’ve had the Android SDK on my Ubuntu desktop for quite a while now, so I was ready to go as soon as the phone came in. I decided to keep stock Froyo on the phone for a couple days, just to get a feel for what the intended Google experience was like. Here comes my first disappointment: with a non-modified froyo install on a Google branded Nexus One, I was getting a fair amount of force closes. Mobile phones are tough (specifically, memory-challenged) environments so in some cases I can understand, and am fairly tolerant of, some minor issues. The force closes here were in the most basic of apps, however: namely the dialer and most often the messaging app.

I’ve been using Linux long enough that a few force closes aren’t really going to deter me from using what should prove to be the most significant Linux-based entry into the mobile market. So, now it’s time to start moving things over from my previous phone. Unfortunately, said phone does not store its contacts on the SIM card and has no built in export (unsurprisingly, it has an import). No problem I’m thinking; I’ve actually been meaning to tinker with funambol for a while now, and this is the perfect excuse to do so. My first market download goes smoothly, and aside from the brain-dead decision on gmail’s side to try to import every person I’ve ever emailed as a contact, everything imports smoothly (as an aside, funambol is a great product that I definitely recommend having now used it). Here comes the first weirdness, due to a bug in the way Android handles contacts. You can’t actually edit imported contacts with the default editor and the will not sync with Gmail, meaning the built in backup mechanism won’t see them. While this is really frustrating, the workaround (export the contacts while funambol is installed, uninstall funambol and the then import as native contacts) is easy enough that I wasn’t too worked up about it. While on the topic of backups, I’d say android has some pros (the cloud-based contacts sync is fantastic) when compared to the iPhone, but the overall backup/restore process on the iPhone is still unparalleled.

With a couple free apps downloaded, I decided to purchase a few apps. Next disappointment; if the Google account you use on the phone is a Google apps account, you can’t actually purchase anything from the market. So, basically, I’m paying Google for an apps account and then using a phone OS made by Google, but I have to create a new free Google account to actually buy anything from the android market. It’s almost like they don’t actually want you to use Google-related services on your Google phone. Which brings me to this entry in the Android issue tracker. How is it possible that there’s no Google Docs app for android??

With those frustrations and disappointments out of the way, let me say that the rest of the android experience has been very positive and that even with the significant time lead that Apple had, android is either ahead or rapidly catching up in almost every single aspect. In my opinion, the iPhone wasn’t nearly that good until OS 3. I anticipate version 3 of android being very similar in this regard. That android has come this far in a version 2.2 is truly impressive. Many of the issues I have with the iPhone are related to the closed nature of the platform and android has the potential to completely alleviate that. Whether the carriers with intercede and ruin this potential for their own gain remains to be seen, however.

Now, as nice as this thing is from a user perspective, from a Linux user’s perspective it’s absolutely phenomenal. Being able to quickly rsync my music collection to the phone is really refreshing. Being able to simply ‘adb push $foo’ to get files/apps/whatever onto the phone is equally refreshing. That’s just the beginning though. Being able to download entirely new android-based ROM’s such as Cyanogen makes me excited about a phone in a way that the iPhone never did or could.

So, what does the future of android hold? That’s a more difficult question to answer. First, you have some deeply entrenched competitors in place who have a lot to lose. Next, you have some patent FUD and multiple lawsuits already in the works. You then have the aforementioned carriers who may see the freedom that android offers as a threat, but one they’re able to remove due to the Open Source nature of of android. It’s also clear that at some point android will have to deal with a fragmentation issue that no other mobile OS has had to content with on this level. Even with all those issues, however, I think it would be *very* difficult to bet against android at this point. There’s simply too much going for it and it’s only going to improve from here. After using my Nexus One for a couple of weeks I can honestly say that I don’t miss the iPhone one bit, and I think that’s saying a lot.

–jeremy

Google Android outsells Apple iPhone in Q1 of 2010

From the article:

Smartphones based on Google’s Android mobile operating system have outsold Apple’s iPhone in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2010, according to a report by research firm The NPD Group. The data places Android, with 28 percent of the smartphone market, in second place behind RIM’s Blackberry smartphone market share of 36 percent. Apple now sits in third place with 21 percent.

NPD points to a Verizon buy-one-get-one-free promotion for all of its smartphones as a major factor in the first quarter numbers. Verizon saw strong sales for the Motorola Droid and Droid Eris Android phones, as well as the Blackberry Curve, thanks to its promotional offer. Verizon launched a $100 million marketing campaign for the Droid when it hit the market in November 2009, which likely attributed to strong sales in the first quarter as well.

While these numbers do not take into account the Droid Incredible (which looks to be the nicest Android-based handset yet), you should also keep in mind that they don’t account for the many people likely holding out on buying an iPhone now due to the almost certain release of the next iteration which will be available some time this quarter. I think even with the new iPhone, however, we’ll continue to see Android gaining market share… and the reason is fairly simple: If you want an iPhone you can get one made by exactly one vendor, and then use it only on mobile carriers blessed by that one vendor (yes, you can jailbreak your phone, but that’s far outside the technical knowhow of the average user and still doesn’t give you carte blanche in choosing a carrier). With Android, on the other hand, you have an Open mobile OS that any handset manufacturer is welcome to use and any carrier is welcome to support. You can buy an unsubsidized phone right from Google, or choose a subsidized option via the carrier of your choice (and I’m not aware of a major mobile carrier that doesn’t have some kind of Android option at this point). You can even buy myriad Android devices that are not mobile phones, from tablets and set-top boxes to cars and home appliances. As time goes on, it’s very difficult to imagine that this openness and product lineup replete with options will not become an even larger advantage, despite the very polished product that Apple is putting out. I’d like to think Apple has learned the repercussions of being too closed, but it seems they may be doomed to repeat the mistakes they made in the late 80’s.

Does that mean Android will blow past Apple in overall market share? Nope; whether that will happen remains to be seen. How the myriad versions and releases of Android play out over the next 24 months or so is going to have a huge impact on its long term success. I’m already seeing reports of some incompatibility issues and if that passes a certain threshold, many app developers will simply stop making Android apps (or will relegate them to second tier releases) which have a huge negative impact on the Android ecosystem and the mobile carriers willingness to support Android. I think Google understands this, but whether or not they’re able to avoid it is a question only time will answer.

Additional Reading:
* NPD Press Release
* Is Android Really Outselling Apple?
* Android market share over iPhone not as impressive as it looks
* Is Android the new Microsoft for Apple?

–jeremy

End Runs Around Vista?

BusinessWeek recently ran an article that indicated that HP may be working on a version of Linux to ship on its hardware:

The ecosystem that Microsoft (MSFT) has built up around its Windows operating system is showing signs of strain. In one of several recent moves by partners that sell or support the company’s software, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), the world’s No. 1 PC maker, has quietly assembled a group of engineers to develop software that will let customers bypass certain features of Vista, the latest version of Windows. Employees on a separate skunk works team are even angling to replace Windows with an HP-assembled operating system, say three sources close to the company.

HP acknowledges the first effort. The company formed the “customer experience” group nine months ago and put at its helm Susie Wee, a former director in the company’s research labs. Her team is developing touchscreen technology and other software that allows users to circumvent Microsoft’s operating system to watch movies or view photos more easily than they can with Vista. “Our customers are looking for insanely simple technology where they don’t have to fight with the technology to get the task done,” says Phil McKinney, chief technology officer in HP’s PC division. After Vista was introduced last year, it drew criticism for slowing down computers and not working smoothly for certain tasks.

McKinney says any discussions about building an operating system to rival Windows are happening below senior-management levels. He doesn’t deny some employees may have had such conversations, but he says HP isn’t devoting substantial resources to such projects. “Is HP funding a huge R&D team to go off and create an operating system? [That] makes no sense,” he says. “For us it’s about innovating on top of Vista.”
WEANING FROM WINDOWS?

Still, the sources say employees in HP’s PC division are exploring the possibility of building a mass-market operating system. HP’s software would be based on Linux, the open-source operating system that is already widely available, but it would be simpler and easier for mainstream users, the sources say. The goal may be to make HP less dependent on Windows and to strengthen HP’s hand against Apple (AAPL), which has gained market share in recent years by offering easy-to-use computers with its own operating system.

HP’s moves come as several of Microsoft’s closest partners are stepping up their support for Windows alternatives.

To be honest, I’m almost surprised that HP or Dell hasn’t done something like this already. It’s clear that consumers do not like Vista and Apple is making huge strides recently. Moving to an in house Linux variant would give an OEM more control over their own destiny, better integration with their own hardware, product differentiation and higher margins. That being said, it would also come with the potentially steep downside of annoying Microsoft, who has proven they are willing to punish OEM’s for seriously considering alternative desktop Operating Systems in the past. We may be reaching a turning point though. At some point soon I think you’ll see that Microsoft just may be more dependent on the OEM’s than the other way around.

So, that brings us to the following question: why is HP letting this news out in this way. It could be a couple of things. It could be testing the waters to see how Microsoft will react. However, it could just be using this as a barging chip to get a better OEM deal on Windows, or more co-marketing dollars out of Microsoft. I’m not sure which direction I’m leaning at the moment, but I think it’s clear that one of the major OEM’s are going to do this very soon. With the recent announcement by Ubuntu that it is going to try to refine the Linux desktop experience to be more inline with the Apple experience, things look to be coming together nicely. The first OEM that sincerely jumps in the water on this one is going to have a significant lead IMHO.

–jeremy

Apple iPhone 2.0 Upgrade == FAIL

A note to Apple. I find it astonishing that you have created an upgrade procedure that can fail in a way that leaves the phone useless. You had 6+ months to prepare for this, so error messages like this are just inexcusable. Google, please hurry up with Android ;)

–jeremy

Is Apple Killing Linux on the Desktop?

It looks like some think that OS X may be “killing” Linux on the desktop. I’m not sure that’s the case, but it’s an interesting point to explore. It’s true that Apple has a much higher percentage of desktop users than Linux does. Even if Linux grew at a faster rate in the time period given, it was off a much smaller base (and is still under 1-3% by most accounts). In most cases though, I don’t think you can definitively say that if a user didn’t go with OS X that they would have gone with Linux. Apple does a lot of things really good. Marketing is certainly one of them, but they do create slick machines that are very appealing. The fact that most traditional UNIX tools work with OS X is huge. I do think the “they just work” part is a bit overblown, but it’s certainly a better out of the box experience than Linux. That being said, many of the things that make that out of the box experience possible are the reasons some people switch to Linux. You want OS X, you have to purchase an Apple. The lock in involved with the Apple experience is actually worse than with Microsoft. So if it’s a UNIX-like OS with a shiny GUI that you’re looking for, OS X may indeed be what you want. If freedom is what you’re looking for, Apple is probably not for you.

Don’t take this to mean that I don’t like Apple. I think they are doing some really cool things. They are at times Open Source friendly and are creating real choice in the mass OS market. I think people are getting increasingly frustrated with Apple policies and practices though. The evidence isn’t too difficult to find. Apple really has little incentive to have pro-customer policies. If you want an iPod, an iPhone or OS X you don’t have any choice. If you want Linux, you can get hardware from any vendor you’d like. In the end, however, I’d still contend that more OS X sales are good for Linux… not bad. It gets people used to not using Windows. It introduces them to a UNIX-based OS. It opens doors that would be hard for Linux to open. Once the Windows monopoly is broken, it will be easy for all other operating systems to get a fair look. I welcome that day.

–jeremy

Apple Support

Did you know that if you walk into an Apple store with a broken iPhone, in this case a roughly one inch horizontal band on the touch screen that doesn’t register anything, they actually tell you to make an appointment and come back another time? I don’t mean walk around the mall and grab something to eat another time, I mean a different day. When I asked the rep if he thought this was good customer service, he just shrugged and said that’s the way it is. As regular readers know, I already wasn’t that happy of an iPhone owner. This just puts me over the top. I’m now counting the days until I can order the OpenMoko Neo1973 GTA02. I was seriously considering getting a new MacBook Pro over the next couple weeks. No way that will happen now. Are my expectations too high?

–jeremy

Where's my Gphone?

Google finally made the highly anticipated Gphone related announcement today:

Despite all of the very interesting speculation over the last few months, we’re not announcing a Gphone. However, we think what we are announcing — the Open Handset Alliance and Android — is more significant and ambitious than a single phone. In fact, through the joint efforts of the members of the Open Handset Alliance, we hope Android will be the foundation for many new phones and will create an entirely new mobile experience for users, with new applications and new capabilities we can’t imagine today.

Android is the first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices. It includes an operating system, user-interface and applications — all of the software to run a mobile phone, but without the proprietary obstacles that have hindered mobile innovation. We have developed Android in cooperation with the Open Handset Alliance, which consists of more than 30 technology and mobile leaders including Motorola, Qualcomm, HTC and T-Mobile. Through deep partnerships with carriers, device manufacturers, developers, and others, we hope to enable an open ecosystem for the mobile world by creating a standard, open mobile software platform. We think the result will ultimately be a better and faster pace for innovation that will give mobile customers unforeseen applications and capabilities.

It’s important to recognize that the Open Handset Alliance and Android have the potential to be major changes from the status quo — one which will take patience and much investment by the various players before you’ll see the first benefits. But we feel the potential gains for mobile customers around the world are worth the effort. If you’re a developer and this approach sounds exciting, give us a week or so and we’ll have an SDK available. If you’re a mobile user, you’ll have to wait a little longer, but some of our partners are targeting the second half of 2008 to ship phones based on the Android platform. And if you already have a phone you know and love, check out mobile.google.com and make sure you have Google Maps for mobile, Gmail and our other great applications on your phone. We’ll continue to make these services better and add plenty of exciting new features, applications and services, too.

This is fairly inline with what I was expecting. While some were anticipating a hardware device from Google, a platform plus stack release makes much more sense. They don’t have to get into a very low margin high capital business and they can keep existing partnerships in place without the added stress of direct competition. This move should have fairly large repercussion for the entire industry. With the availability of a full SDK for this platform, Apple is really going to get hurt if they are too closed with their SDK, which will be released soon. Looking at the Open Handset Alliance members, you’ll notice both Nokia and FIC are missing. You have to wonder how this announcement will impact Maemo and OpenMoko, respectively. I’d guess we’ll see many more partners and stepped up competition as a result of this announcement, so I’ll keep an eye out and post an update when the dust has settled. One thing is clear, the Linux mobile landscape is heating up.

Additional Reading:
TechCrunch
Edgadget
Mashable
Techdirt
Linux Foundation (which has pointers to many of the Linux mobile initiatives and players, including: ACCESS, A La Mobile, Celunite, FST, Mizi Research, OpenMoko/FIC, Purple Labs, Trolltech, LiMO, LiPS, Moblin and more)

–jeremy

Some LinuxQuestions.org Stats

Every once and a while I like to post a quick update that includes some stats about LQ. Here are a couple for the month of October 2007.

Browsers
* A total of 277 distinct Browsers visited LQ last month. Those with more than 1%:

Firefox 61.99%
IE 24.14%
Mozilla 5.50%
Opera 4.29%
Konqueror 2.18%
Safari 1.53%

Operating Systems
* A total of 23 distinct Operating Systems visited LQ last month. Those with more than 1%:

Windows 52.99%
Linux 43.09%
Macintosh 3.10%

Browser and OS combo
* The top 5 Browser/OS combos are:

Firefox / Linux 33.24%
Firefox / Windows 26.66%
IE / Windows 23.84%
Mozilla / Linux 5.33%
Opera / Linux 2.30%
Konqueror / Linux 2.30%

RSS feed
* The RSS feed with the most subscribers is LQ Latest Threads. RSS readers with more than 1%

Google Feedfetcher 77%
Google Desktop 10%
Firefox Live Bookmarks 3%
Firefox Live Bookmarks (Version 1) 2%
Bloglines 1%
MyYahoo 1%

Random
* 95.51% of visitors had Java support
* 88.29% of visitors had Flash support
* 97% browse with a screen resolution 1024×768 or greater

LQ is certainly not representative of the web as a whole, but interesting nonetheless. Enjoy.

–jeremy

Apple: "we plan to have an iPhone SDK in developers' hands in February"

Apple has finally officially announced a real SDK for the iPhone. From the Apple announcement:

Third Party Applications on the iPhone

Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

It will take until February to release an SDK because we’re trying to do two diametrically opposed things at once—provide an advanced and open platform to developers while at the same time protect iPhone users from viruses, malware, privacy attacks, etc. This is no easy task. Some claim that viruses and malware are not a problem on mobile phones—this is simply not true. There have been serious viruses on other mobile phones already, including some that silently spread from phone to phone over the cell network. As our phones become more powerful, these malicious programs will become more dangerous. And since the iPhone is the most advanced phone ever, it will be a highly visible target.

Some companies are already taking action. Nokia, for example, is not allowing any applications to be loaded onto some of their newest phones unless they have a digital signature that can be traced back to a known developer. While this makes such a phone less than “totally open,” we believe it is a step in the right direction. We are working on an advanced system which will offer developers broad access to natively program the iPhone’s amazing software platform while at the same time protecting users from malicious programs.

There’s a lot of speculation about whether or not the dedicated iPhone hackers forced Apples’ hand on this. Looking at the Springboard breakdown, some amount of support for additional apps has been there since the beginning. The latest 1.1.1 release seems to have increased that. The question is: with the PR beating it was taking, why didn’t Apple announce this when the iPhone was initially released, and what took them so long? Only Jobs knows for sure, but announcing it from the very beginning would likely have caused some people to hold off on their purchase. As for what’s taking so long, it could be a variety of things. The latest firmware release clearly shows that the iPhone platform is still a rapidly moving target. Apple may just want things to stabilize a bit before letting others in. It will be interesting to see how Apple rolls this out. Will apps have to be digitally signed by Apple? Will the only installation mechanism be iTunes? We’ll have to wait and see. While I’m glad to see this announcement (although they really didn’t have much of a choice in the end if they wanted a truly successful product long term), it’s probably not enough for me not to switch to an OpenMoko device in December.

–jeremy

Patent Infringement Lawsuit Filed Against Red Hat & Novell II

(A follow up to previous coverage)

As you may have guessed, this topic is being discussed heavily around the web. Mark Radcliffe points out that Open Source companies are likely becoming a more tempting target to patent trolls due to the stunning growth in the sector (keep in mind that Microsoft, Apple, et al. put up with this kind of thing all the time):

Although I and many attorneys in the open source industry have long been concerned about patent challenges to open source companies, this case appears to be the first by patent trolls against an open source licensor. The open source industry provides a tempting target because of its rapid growth. This morning, Eben Moglen at the Software Freedow Law Center Seminar on FOSS issues noted that Brad Bunnell of Microsoft joined Acacia on October 1 . According to news reports, Brad spent sixteen years at Microsoft at a number of positions which included General Manager, Intellectual Property Licensing. http://biz.yahoo.com/bw/071001/20071001005590.html?.v=1

Eben raises the intriguing question about whether these incidents are related. Given the time that it takes to prepare a patent lawsuit, Brad’s hiring probably did not effect the filing of this lawsuit. However the hiring may indicate the addition of a new business line for Acacia: suits against open source companies. Steve Ballmer’s recent comments about Red Hat’s obligation to pay Microsoft for alleged use of its patents makes this lawsuit and the timing of the move interesting.

Matt Asay points out a list of coincidences:

* One or more former Microsoft licensing execs join Acacia or one or its companies;
* Ballmer makes his most recent statement regarding Red Hat;
* Almost the same day, Red Hat (and presumbably Novell) receive notice of the alleged infringement from IP Innovation (Acacia);
* Before either company has a chance to consider the letter and respond, IP Innovation files its lawsuit in Texas;
* Novell changes all of its IP indemnification the same day (which it has named “Technology Assurance Program” as contrasted with Red Hat’s Open Source Assurance Program Novell apparently isn’t interested in assuring open source, just technology ;-);
* Novell’s new program notes a change in the Microsoft/Novell deal that covers GPLv3 code distributed by Novell for downstream recipients.

Hmm….I forget sometimes who is on which team, but it certainly seems like two sides have been conspiring on this, and I don’t mean IP Innovation and Microsoft (which is almost a given).

Stephen Walli (who was still at Microsoft when the SCO suit was launched) gives some advice that I couldn’t agree with more: Take a deep breath. Be calm. He continues:

The U.S. Supreme Court continues to involve itself in the broken patent system. The Linux Foundation and the Open Invention Network are both geared for this particular fight. I have confidence that the Groklaw community will step into the breach of reporting and investigation again. IBM, Intel, and HP have a vested interest in the outcome, and nobody plays IP games the way IBM does. Over the next few weeks, lawyers will come together behind the scenes from all the interested parties on the defending side. Hopefully egos won’t be too large, and a coherent plan of negotiation will emerge.

Some of the more interesting questions for me will be:

* Why Red Hat AND Novell?
* Why not Microsoft? (Acacia went after Apple who settled. Microsoft would seem to have deeper pockets than Red Hat or Novell. It would seem to be the more interesting business discussion.)
* If Microsoft is not involved, should they be? If Apple settled, and then this suit settles, Microsoft should know they’re next on the list. Or are they trusting IBM et al to win this one for them?

To quote one of my favourite lawyers in this space:

“If the F/OSS community wants to be in commercial space, community members will have to learn to deal calmly with IP litigation. The F/OSS production model will work where it makes sense, and it will not work where it doesn’t. It’s really just that simple. Particular claims in individual suits—even one against a flagship program such as the GNU/Linux OS—will not determine the fate of the community. Such cases present factual issues that will get resolved one way or another; they do not represent a crisis for F/OSS production as a whole. Norm entrepreneurial rhetoric that plays off such cases should be treated as entertainment. Enjoy it if you like it, take inspiration from it if you must, but don’t confuse it with the way things actually get done.”

I’m sure some former colleagues at Microsoft are excited. Mr. Smith and Mr. Ballmer most assuredly. But just as with the SCO Group litigation, there is no reason to celebrate. They shouldn’t confuse this with “the way things actually get done.” Pax.

I do find it interesting that Acacia went from Apple to Red Hat / Novell, when Microsoft surely would have been a much more compelling target from a business perspective. It becomes a simple case of follow the money from there. More information will come out of this in the coming weeks and months, so staying calm and focusing on what’s important is surely the correct course of action.

–jeremy

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