open source

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.

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.

Proprietary Vendors Want Open Source Sanctions

The Guardian reports that  International Intellectual Property Alliance requested that the U.S. Trade Representative to put countries using open source in government on a “Special 301 watchlist” – a list of intellectual property-violating nations, or “state sponsors of piracy.” The recommendation states:

The Indonesian government’s policy… simply weakens the software industry and undermines its long-term competitiveness by creating an artificial preference for companies offering open source software and related services, even as it denies many legitimate companies access to the government market.

Rather than fostering a system that will allow users to benefit from the best solution available in the market, irrespective of the development model, it encourages a mindset that does not give due consideration to the value to intellectual creations.

As such, it fails to build respect for intellectual property rights and also limits the ability of government or public-sector customers (e.g., State-owned enterprise) to choose the best solutions.

In general, this is just another example of an established, successful industry trying to maintain power by coercing governments to make emerging business models illegal, rather than bothering to innovate and create sustainability in the free market. I rant about this all the time, so I won’t continue to do so here.

But since this was filed by the “International Intellectual Property Alliance” – an interest group which conveniently separates this action’s publicity from the companies it represents – I thought I’d just call out just a few of the member companies which are behind this anticompetitive action: (this list goes through member organizations of the IIPA, including the BSAESA and AAP)

  • Adobe
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Apple
  • Bloomberg Press
  • The Cato Institute (Free market libertarian economics think tanks for government regulations?!)
  • Cisco Systems
  • Dell
  • Electronic Arts
  • Harcourt, Inc.
  • Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • HP
  • IBM
  • Intel
  • McGraw-Hill
  • Microsoft
  • Motion Picture Association of America
  • Nintendo
  • Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
  • SAP
  • Sony
  • Symantec
  • Xerox
  • Countless University presses (MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Oxford, Universities of California, Chicago, New York, North Carolina and more)

While there isn’t evidence that these companies directly instigated the effort to stifle competition from open source, they are the financial backers of this anticompetitive organization, and thus have a responsibility to be accountable for its actions.