The New OS Wars: The Variety of Android Boosters

20120905-110541.jpgThe verdict in Apple v. Samsung unleashed a flood of commentary on the relative merits of Apple and Android, and the one thing that has struck me as I read through the posts and comments is the passion of Android supporters. I’ve been following OS wars for 25 years or so since the heyday of Mac OS vs. MS-DOS and I’m still surprised at how invested some people get in their choice of software, the code equivalent of fans who show up at Lambeau Field in December with their half-naked bodies painted green and gold.

I spent years being taken to task by Apple advocates any time I said anything less than totally favorable about any Apple product, often being accused of being on the Microsoft payroll. Today, the Android fans (please don’t call them, or anyone else, fanboys. It’s a childish epithet) seem to be the most passionate. In reading their views, I have identified several sub-species of Android enthusiasts.

The Makers. This is the group I find most appealing. They are inveterate tinkers drawn to Android because what others see as chaos in the Android world they see as opportunity. To them, the most important characteristic of a new Android handset is the ability to “root” it to circumvent whatever restrictions Google, the phone manufacturer, or carrier may have placed on it. They will sacrifice convenience and even functionality for freedom and are repelled both by Apple’s “control freak” approach to apps and the closed Apple software/hardware environment. Tinkering is the mother of innovation and let us not forget that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got their start as phone phreaks. The Makers’ principal sin is failing to realize that they represent a tiny slice of the market and assuming that their views are far more widely held than they are.

The Open Source Hardliners. This group is related to the Makers, but not nearly as much fun. The truest believers find the idea of making money from software morally repulsive. Their problem is that while Android may look open in comparison to iOS, Android’s open source cred is a little shaky. In theory, anyone can take Android code and use it freely under an Apache license. In practice, most of the major OEMs (Amazon, hardly a paragon of openness itself, is the leading exception) have chosen to use Google’s official versions of Android and to play by Google’s rules. The principal practical difference in openness between iOS and Android as they come from the factory is that Android requires only a simple change in preferences to install apps that do not have Google’s official sanction while an iPhone requires a warranty-voiding “jailbreak.”

The Underdog Backers. There seems to be something in human nature that causes people to back an underdog. And even though Android is backed by a powerful Google and Android handsets have been outselling iPhones for a while, it is still seen by many as David to Apple’s Goliath. Some of this same sentiment worked in favor of Palm’s webOS, even after Hewlett-Packard bought it, and actually strengthened for a bit after HP killed it. (Death is the ultimate underdog status.) Somehow, though, back-the-underdog sentiment hasn’t done much for poor Research In Motion, and viewing Microsoft as a spunky challenger seems to make people’s heads explode, even if Microsoft is a very distant third or fourth in the business.

The Apple Haters. This is the group, in some sense a more hard-edged and nastier version of the Underdog Backers, that I find most troubling. It almost seems as if a whole group of people who used to hate Microsoft have transferred their animus intact to Apple. Strangely, the complaints are almost exactly the same. Folks used to denounce a greedy Micro$oft. Now they complain about a greedy Apple’s prices. They regularly denounced Microsoft as a bully using its power to crush competitors; now they say they exact same thing about Apple. There’s at least a bit of truth in this charge. What is much stranger is the charge that Apple is brilliant at packaging and marketing but provides no innovation and develops its products by copying, or in the less polite version, stealing. Of course, the exact same charge used to be leveled at Microsoft. It wasn’t true of Microsoft and it most certainly is not true of Apple. If Apple had done nothing but the iPhone, it would still be one of the most innovative companies in history. I have trouble figuring out just what motivates the Apple haters, but I imagine I’ll be hearing from plenty of them.

Of course, the great majority of Android buyers don’t fall into any of these classes. The are buying Android for a large variety of reasons, ranging from supersized displays to super-low prices. Some carriers push Android hard because they don’t have an iPhone to offer. Some with iPhones in their portfolios push Android anyway because it is more profitable or more in line with their strategy. Verizon, for example, has been soft-pedaling the iPhone because it made a strategic decision to push only phones that support its massive investment in LTE technology (this is likely to change with the release of the next iPhone.) Of course, most of these people also don’t write or comment on blogs. They just buy, use and, I hope, enjoy their phones, whatever device they have chosen.