Featured

City ID software soliciting a paid subscription

My Solution for the Android Bloatware Problem

City ID software soliciting a paid subscription

City ID, a non-removable app preinstalled on my HTC Incredible by Verizon to get more money from me. They even start off with an unannounced trial of the functionality and hold it hostage 2 weeks later unless you pay up.

Note: Skimmers should definitely skip my overtures and get straight to my recommendations at the bottom of this post.

A lot of concern has cropped up regarding “bloatware” in the most recent batch of smartphones running Android. There are really two sources of complaints in this area:

  1. Custom User Interface skins put on top of the stock Android OS by the manufacturer.
    These skins take a generic, manufacturer-agnostic OS and create an experience unique to an individual manufacturer’s devices. Manufacturers seem to experiment endlessly with these custom UIs, often revising them with each new generation of device. They vary a lot in quality, but in turn also create more options for customers to choose the device best tailored to fit their own personal preferences. (Some will decry the existence of any custom UI, but I am in love with the time-tested HTC Sense UI, and moreover think that an “open” platform should allow for such innovations.) But it’s now impossible to buy a high-end Android phone in the United States without one of these custom UIs. With Google’s removal of their Nexus One phone from the consumer market, there are few examples of phones offering the pure “Google experience.”
  2. Additional “bloatware” programs pre-loaded onto phones by carriers to make a quick buck.
    Just like many new Windows PCs, carriers now compensate for their ever-decreasing margins on device sales by loading programs onto their phones for the purpose of generating more revenue, often without regard for the quality of the customer’s experience with the end product. One phone comes with a non-removable copy of Avatar; another has the search set to Bing by default and doesn’t allow owners to change to another service; AT&T doesn’t allow the loading of programs outside the Android Marketplace; and yet others build basic caller ID or visual voicemail apps and tack disproportionate monthly fees onto the bill for their use.

I’m not surprised or discouraged to see this come up as an issue as the Android OS matures. In fact, Android works this way by design. Android would not have existed as a product if it weren’t for the support of the Open Handset Alliance, a huge consortium of carriers, manufacturers and developers who stood to benefit from such an open platform. Back in 2007, the iPhone turned the smartphone status quo upside down, and did so by taking almost all the power away from the carrier with a vertically integrated product of uniform hardware and software. Any company wishing to make money in Apple’s new market, they had to first cede the final say on all matters to Apple, who in turn prioritized the quality of the user experience above all else. In many ways, Android only became successful because it gave carriers the opportunity to re-prioritize profits over quality products and services.

This isn’t to say that Android is doomed to a future of bloatware and terrible UX. Indeed, we’re seeing rather textbook examples of differentiation in a free market. Android is the best platform for differentiating devices for different preferences and price points. And anyone who oversteps the bounds of what a customer is willing to buy, they won’t succeed. And on top of these economic norms, Android’s open nature and fast release cycle makes it the most accessible mobile OS for innovators throughout the platform, from app developers, to service providers, to device manufacturers.

But at the same time, it’s clear that no American carrier sees economic benefit in selling a “pure” Android phone. Manufacturer-controlled phones from RIM and Apple are seamless integrations of hardware and software, and even Microsoft is asserting more control over the process with Windows Phone 7. With rumors of an imminent end to the iPhone’s exclusivity, it’s possible that carriers could just see Android as a good lower-end option below “premium” offerings on other OSes.

But I think this can be easily changed to keep Android’s momentum working in a positive direction without making sacrifices to openness, profits, or much else. Here’s how:

  1. Change the “Google logo” terms to put the customer’s needs first again.
    Android itself is totally open source and free, but you have to follow some extra rules to get the “with Google” logo and access to Google’s apps, including the Android Marketplace app store. Right now those rules aren’t very demanding, but Google could definitely insist that extra OEM/Carrier things on top of stock Android be removable by the end user. (They could even go as far as to ban custom UIs or bloatware, but I think it wouldn’t fit Android’s open nature, and would be a losing move towards competing with Apple’s business model.) “But what about the lost carrier revenue?” That’s where step #2 comes in:
  2. Give carriers a share of Google’s 30% cut on app sales.
    This gives them an incentive to make more pure “Google logo” devices over crippled alternatives. As carriers worry more and more about becoming generic service providers of wholesale data bits, this gives them a significant new revenue stream that actually rewards them for making the devices their customers really want. “But the Android Marketplace is mostly free apps, this isn’t Apple’s app store…” That’s true, but sacrifices don’t need to be made there, either:
  3. Charge developers an annual fee for the Android Marketplace to encourage paid apps, but protect developers’ existing freedoms
    Apple charges each developer $99 per year to develop and sell their applications in their store, and the only alternative is through jailbreaking. Android’s Marketplace is more financially accessible, and has a lot more free apps. To convince carriers that a Marketplace revenue share is attractive, they would need to change the Marketplace’s composure to a more revenue-driven approach. But the existing community of free app developers should also be accommodated for – I envision creating even more freedom for developers to use alternative distribution methods, first by forbidding AT&T-like restrictions on outside applications, and even – this is probably too optimistic – making root/super user access an easy opt-in setting on every phone for geeks who know what they’re doing.

I have no experience in the telecom industry, and I bet the folks in charge of Android at Google know a lot better than I, but I think something like this would be a logical direction to take as Android moves to new heights of popularity. I wonder especially about revenue sharing in the Marketplace when the carriers are going to the lengths of crippling their own devices in order to compensate for diminishing margins on unit sales.

Growing Pains in the Web’s Social Revolution

I’ve observed these two things in last ten years of evolution in the “Social Web:”

  1. The Social Web has made huge changes to the way people express themselves and communicate in their daily lives, generally enhancing connections and making the world a lot smaller.
  2. That very same trend has also created more complexity from the sheer amount of information being shared through social platforms.

The actual nature of what we do in our lives hasn’t changed much; it’s just become so much more public and easily shared with the masses. In person, we can only have so much interaction, due to the limits of time and physical location.  But now technology has removed many of those barriers; we can now blast information to the masses regardless of our location or the availability of a captive, dedicated audience.

Personally, I find that these developments make it a lot harder parse all the information and isolate the stuff I find most relevant. Some of this is because people on the Social Web write for so many different audiences; one person might use Twitter to promote their business, ask people in their industry a question, post pictures of something random that happened, link to a popular meme, or just vent about what they’re feeling at the moment. (Or, God forbid, tell everyone what they had for breakfast.) To that person, it’s all self-expression of things they felt like sharing. But for the follower, it’s totally void of any personalization to deliver the content they personally care about the most. Some of my followers online are people in my industry, and some are friends or family. But they all get the entire stream, and are subject to reading whatever I decide is worth putting in their content stream.

Some of this problem can be solved by making more conscious decisions about the most relevant place to post different content online, or through the creation of more context- or audience-aware social platforms. But more than this, I think our society is just struggling to adapt to a very new kind of communication. As always, the young will find it easiest to adapt, so they will drive the changes before anyone else does.

I don’t know how things will turn out, but I’m pretty sure we’re going through a cultural revolution. A couple of decades from now, social interaction across the world will look very different, and I imagine that will also have serious implications in other spheres- especially world politics and economics.

Spain’s Blurred Cultural Divides (or how Newt Gingrich can’t even get xenophobia right)

The Alhambra, from Mirador San Nicolás

The Alhambra of Granada: Muslim Nasrid Fortress; Holy Roman Emperor Charles V's palace; Catholic churches and ex-mosques in view. Photo taken outside the Saint Nicholas church in the Albayzin "Muslim quarter" of the city.

Newt Gingrich states,

“The proposed “Cordoba House” overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks – is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites.  For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term.  It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.” [Emphasis mine.]

I’ll overlook Gingrich’s gross overstatement of the historical facts (this excellent post by a medieval historian refutes his statements in detail) and get to the more glaring irony in his statement. Say hello to the “world’s third-largest mosque complex,” that symbolic victory over Christian Spain (which before the conquest was neither unified in religion nor statehood):

Yep, that just makes ya tremble in fear of Islamist conquerors, doesn’t it? Newt Gingrich uses Córdoba as an example of the Muslim destruction of Western or Christian culture, yet the very building in question stands today not as a mosque, but a cathedral. (Ironically, the world’s third-largest Christian complex lies a couple of hours’ drive away in Seville – a mosque converted into a cathedral after the Catholics conquered the Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus.) Continue reading

Polyprogramy

Twice on this blog, I’ve written listings of the various software I use: one from when I owned a Dell laptop and worked in all-Microsoft shop, and one half a year after I switched to a MacBook Pro. But I’ve noticed that in just the five months since that last one, my technological behaviors and habits have changed in a less common way. Instead of having an application of choice for a given task, I’m no longer able to pick just one, instead using many similar programs because of their minor advantages over one another:

  • I constantly switch between Safari, Firefox and Chrome for browsing. Firefox has my beloved Firebug, Chrome does tabs exactly how I want, and Safari has the most adherence to the Mac OS UI guidelines and seems to hate Flash the least. (Their asynchronous release cycles often also make one browser temporarily less stable than the others.)
  • On my Mac, I use three apps for accessing Twitter and Facebook in slightly different ways. (Echofon is great if you view one feed at a time. TweetDeck presents it all but has either weak or no support for browsing and exploring different categories/lists/friends. Socialite is unparalleled at aggregating and organizing feeds from multiple sources, but only if you want to read every single item as short text or a link, and has quite a few buttons that don’t behave as you expect them to.) And on top of that, sometimes I can’t get any app to quite do what I want, so I have to – shudder – actually use the Facebook or Twitter web applications. I do the same thing on my phone, switching between HTC Peep/Friend Stream, Touiteur, and touch.facebook.com . (Not Facebook for Android, though. Whoever let that app see the light of the day needs to be taken out back and forced to use MySpace. Or their own app. I can’t decide which is worse.)

Those are just the most prominent examples, but I find myself app-hopping just as much with my text editors, word processors, SSH clients, video players and photo libraries. (I won’t even get into how I carry around an Android phone but still use my old iPhone on Wi-Fi for certain tasks.)

I think the “normal” behavior is to pick the application that best fits one’s needs and find workarounds for the needs it doesn’t satisfy, and to switch programs if a more fitting one comes along. I used to do this for sure. But I’m finding that recently, I’ve become so picky/anal/demanding that I am no longer willing to settle for an app that addresses 95% of my needs – that I’d rather manage two web browsers for their individual niceties than use one.

My new approach certainly isn’t a comfortable one; running so many programs in parallel is taxing both on my computer and on my multitasking-challenged brain. And then there’s that feeling I get every time I decide to switch from one program to another that does the same thing: the reminder that there isn’t one application that works quite the way I’d like. I guess I’ve done this in different ways in the past, like when I switched e-mail providers and addresses all the time, or when I was installing a different OS on my laptop each weekend. Maybe this is just an uncomfortable period of chaotic upheaval before I settle into something more predictable. Maybe I need to go super minimalist and do everything from a bash shell. One thing, though, is certain: I am too geeky for even my own taste.

On WordPress, Thesis, and profitable GPL software

My twitter feed (full of people in the WordPress community after meeting a ton of people at WordCamp Boulder last weekend) unexpectedly caught fire this morning on the #thesiswp hashtag. I had no idea what the fuss was about, but I wasn’t surprised when I read into it: the item in question is Thesis, a robust premium WordPress theme that costs a minimum of $87, and whose source is under a closed software license.

The debate and confusion is really about the licensing status of custom WordPress themes. WordPress is covered by a copyleft license which requires that works derived from the software be covered by the same free, open source license (specifically, GPL v2.) But “derivative works” is a pretty vague concept, and can be interpreted in many different ways. That’s why WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg wrote the Software Freedom Law Center, some of the most experienced legal experts on libre software issues. They provided a rather comprehensive interpretation of the issue:

“In conclusion, the WordPress themes supplied contain elements that are derivative of WordPress’s copyrighted code. These themes, being collections of distinct works (images, CSS files, PHP files), need not be GPL-licensed as a whole. Rather, the PHP files are subject to the requirements of the GPL while the images and CSS are not. Third-party developers of such themes may apply restrictive copyrights to these elements if they wish.”

This falls in between WordPress developers’ wish that the whole community support libre software and Thesis’ completely closed license. Theme PHP must be GPL-compliant, but the graphics and CSS may be licensed otherwise.

As someone who makes custom themes for clients, I am familiar with the feelings of apprehension about open sourcing some of your work – often done for a client who neither knows nor cares about the finer points of free software principles. The common fear is that by giving away your code, you also give away your business model. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. (Unless your business model depends on every customer abiding by your copyright – a foolish strategy in light of how easy it is to pirate web app source code, not to mention an overvaluation of the originality of your source code) (UPDATE: WordPress’ own Jane Wells points out that it’s even less complicated than this for custom theme work, as you only must publish your source under GPL if the theme itself is publicly distributed.)

The truth is that many companies comply with the GPL, retain their trademarks and licensing rights (including WordPress theme graphics and CSS), and do so to great profits. Google, Apple, Facebook, Red Hat, Novell, and countless others make their GPL source available – as do many other WordPress premium theme makers. You can sell themes as long as your PHP complies with the GPL. Pirates can easily copy the rest of your theme regardless, but embracing the GPL not only complies with copyright law and the license terms, but it supports the ideals that made WordPress possible, and makes the whole community project stronger for everyone. And you don’t have to go out of your way to be financially sustainable while doing so, either. Novell and Red Hat sell their entire OS open source under the GPL, the Mac OS X kernel and UNIX userland is open source, so there is no reason why a WordPress theme can’t be both GPL-compliant and profitable.

In short:

  1. Know the license before you use any software
  2. REALLY know the license if you plan to make any money by reselling/extending/developing on top of that software
  3. Comply with copyright law and license terms
  4. Have a business model that relies on your ingenuity and competitive advantages, not on often-disrespected intellectual property laws. If it works for so many on the Fortune 500, it probably can work for your small business.