The New OS Wars: The Variety of Android Boosters

Steve Wildstrom / September 5th, 2012

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.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • rony

    fine

  • Good ol’ JS

    To the OP, I’m what you would consider a “maker” though I’m sure most of use would rather be considered devs, tinkerers, hackers, or whatever but as you’ve defined your label I won’t say much about it.

    There’s more to us than the simple drive to circumvent or tinker. A large part of what you consider “makers” are looking for a way to express themselves. Through theme’ing, removing bloatware(and sticking it to “the man”), app and ROM development, and other customizations. To a great portion of us(and I’m not trying to speak for everyone) customization is the reason we take to Android. Android is our Burger King, any way we want it.

    I know I’m personally responsible for hundreds(hopefully more) people getting their phones rooted, customized, and/or ROM’d. That just feels good to know that I’ve helped a lot of people do something that they wouldn’t have been able to do on their own or with an Apple or MS device. So even though we only account for a small piece of the overall Android pie. We’re also the most vocal, and the ones pushing the actual changes in Android. Try to count the number of features/changes from the very popular Cyanogenmod made it into Android.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I borrowed the term Maker from O’Reilly Associates’ wonderful Make magazine (makezine.com). I would have called them Hackers except for the negative connotation the term has acquired. Unlike the other groups I talked about, the Makers are creative contributors to the ecosystem and the tech world would be a lot poorer without them.

  • mhikl

    Yup, Steve. I think “The Makers” you are talking about are hobbyists the other Android groups rally round. The Maker or Hobbyist speaks to a special mind. My grandfather, father and brother are such. They were/are involved with amateur radio, fly fishing and the making of their own flies. My brother and I as youths were into archery and made our own arrows. Such could be done with cunning and could be superior to ready-mades. Hobbies are healthy and have meditative focus, unless they become an obsession. However, it is never a mainstream function. It takes time, great effort and demands a club enterprise and mentality that stands them away from, above and beyond the common herd often to the detriment of other activities in a social life.

    Here are some curious questions? What if there were no Apple? What if MS had ruled alone? What if Android were the only smart phone? With such would there be contentment in the tech world? But would that end the hobbyist world? I think not. I shutter to think what a mono-tech world of strictly singular products would yield but who can say. Wouldn’t things stick as they were, since there would be nothing for comparison to even understand the possibilities of change? Or, would there still not be debate and argument as to whose version of each tech string was the best? It’s human nature to complain and want more and different and better. I think choice is the foundation that strengthens and makes possible innovation, change and improvement. The great movie, ‘Pleasantville’ comes to mind as one example of what such a world without difference would be like.

    I am glad you are able to find open minded Android enthusiasts, Mr Wildstrom. I am yet to meet one in the wild nor have I seen any one who would express his/er open opinion without abstractions: “mine is better than yours” on this or any other forum. I have seen many on Android sites who had come for help with their nightmares, however. But there they are safe from the judging eyes of Apple advocates and the guard can be let safely down. I have, however, met many Apple proponents who love their machines yet see the flaws and willingly voice them, even agreeing on said short comings in public forums such as this one, even knowing they may be held up to ridicule by wayward Android intrusionists. Numbers of them can be seen in a forum discussion yet the fact will be ignored as “Apple closed” and Apple Kool-Aid is raged ad nauseam. Indeed, when they do raise concerns or Apple problems, they are often belittled by the close-minded, from both the Apple and Android camps.

    When I first see an honest Android participant, I will accept that the possibility of such a mind exists. (maybe Good ol’ JS approaches the mustard) Anger and resentment are terribly unhealthy to both mind and body so I do hope there will be some for then possibly a new seed will have been planted. I do like honest enthusiasts who think outside the box, nutty as some might be.

  • Rich

    “Viewing Microsoft as a spunky challenger seems to make people’s heads explode.”

    Microsoft may have slept through the last 10 years and their stock has been dead money for the same length of time; but in the 1990s Microsoft was a predator, and people have long memories.

  • pawhite524

    I continue to come to this site for its sanity and wisdom. Another well-thought out article and rational commenters.
    @soulchaser:disqus really enjoyed your comments. I wish you well as you “keep on keepin’ on.”

  • pawhite524

    Don’t know what happened. I made a comment specific to *Good ol’ JS* and it showed up as “at soulchaser:disqus.”

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