Is the Success of Google's Android a Threat to Free Software?

When Google first announced its Linux-based Android mobile phone platform just over two years ago, many were sceptical. After all, the reasoning went, the world of mobile phones is very different from that of computers. Similar doubts greeted the first Android phone, the HTC Dream (also known as the T-Mobile G1), when it appeared last year. But something strange has happened in the last twelve months, with a growing chorus of approval for the Android platform and its phones.

For example, numbers are emerging that suggest that Android has established a real beachhead in the mobile market:

Google’s open-source Android operating system accounted for more than one in four of the smartphone ads served in November by AdMob, the mobile ad network that Google agreed to buy for $750 million six weeks ago. That’s up from 20 percent in October.

That means Apple’s iPhone, which seemed untouchable only a few months ago, has a fast-rising competitor. Apple’s share of ad requests is twice as big — 55% — but Android traffic is eating into iPhone growth, rather than being pushed aside by the iPhone as happened to Nokia.

It's also striking that there is now a palpable sense of excitement around some Android phones, notably Motorola's Droid and HTC models like the Hero (disclosure: I've recently bought one of these). This may not quite be at the level of the mindless worship enjoyed by the iPhone, but it's getting surprisingly close. For example, here are some figures on the sales of the Droid:

The Motorola Droid is doing more than just bashing the iPhone -- it's also smashing the ceiling when it comes to mainstream Android appeal. A full 250,000 people snatched up Droids during the phone's first week in stores, some newly released data suggests. That's four times the number of launch-week sales estimated for the myTouch 3G, which had previously been considered the fastest-selling Android device.

So where does the Droid fall within the smartphone spectrum? According to Flurry, Droid's 250,000 figure puts it well above the myTouch, but well below the iPhone. The firm says 60,000 myTouch 3G handsets were sold during its launch week, while 1.6 million iPhones went out during its first seven days.

The same article puts those numbers in context:

Yes, the iPhone's sales figure is significantly higher than the Droid's. But don't forget a couple of important factors:

First, the iPhone 3GS was building upon a massive base of existing iPhone owners, many of whom were guaranteed to be grabbing at Apple's updated model (or, let's be honest, practically anything new Apple offered) the second it hit store shelves. Droid didn't share this advantage; it was a first-generation product without an established fanbase.

Second, and equally noteworthy, the iPhone 3GS launched in eight countries during its first week. The Droid launched only in America. Taking that into consideration, the difference in sales suddenly doesn't seem quite so overwhelming.

And remember: these are *Linux*-based systems that lots of ordinary users are getting worked up about; that's really something quite new and important.

Finally, and just as critically for the future success of the platform, it's worth noting that it's not just the users who are waxing enthusiastic about the Android phones: developers are starting to code for it in big numbers too. Figures from show a healthy upward-trending graph for the number of apps in the Android market. Just how good those apps are (many are feeble), and whether the current figure of 20,000 is completely accurate (Google says it isn't) is largely beside the point: what's important is that the number has doubled in just a few months, which indicates a growing interesting in the platform.

And that's where the problems start. As far as I can tell, the majority of these apps are closed source - it's not something that is flagged up much, but, symptomatically, the Google Android Developer Challenge doesn't require entries to be open source. Which suggests that we are seeing the rise of something that should concern everyone in the free software world: a popular system built on top of Linux, but running closed-source apps.

It already looks increasingly likely that the world of smartphones will be dominated by two platforms: the iPhone and Android. If, as some believe, Google does come out with its own branded mobile, this will give an even greater impetus to Android's uptake. But while the vast majority of the its apps are closed source they will not help spread real user freedom, or offer much of an alternative to Apple's tightly-controlled approach.

Worse, if efforts to enable Android apps to run on distros like Ubuntu succeed, then we may see closed-source software being used on the free software stack there, too. Ironically, Android's success could harm not just open source's chances in the world of mobile phones, but even on the desktop.

The free software community needs to address these problems by encouraging many more developers to build great Android apps that are truly free. In fact, we have an excellent example of how to do that with the rich ecosystem of Firefox add-ons that are free software. Moreover, this should be an attractive challenge to ambitious coders given the exciting possibilities that mobile offers for new kinds of programs (and not just those based on trendy areas like augmented reality). Maybe the time has come to shift the emphasis away from trying in vain to conquer the legacy desktop, towards excelling on mobile, likely to be the main computing platform for most of humanity.

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between Android and Window phone which one is better?

Anonymous's picture

can some body tell me what is the different between Android and window phone....please help thank you....:)

Open source or death!!!

Anonymous's picture

Open source or death!!!

what is "open" in android?

Anonymous's picture

What makes people call android open source platform? What is in android really open source? Can anybody modify anything in their beloved android phone firmware without breaking google license agreement? IMHO android is no more open than iPhone. Calling android "open" is just hype, nothing else. Both android and iPhone are closed silos.

The source code is available

Anonymous's picture

The source code is available at no extra charge, therefore Android is open-source. Whether or not its Free Software is another question entirely...

Good enough for my mobile, not good enough for my desktop

Inkhorn's picture

I've had an HTC dream (G1) for 4 months now. I like the fact that there are a ton of applications to download that you don't have to pay for. My phone is truly very multifunctional.

While this is a wonderful thing for my mobile phone, I don't think that this will be a desirable model for desktop software. Applications for desktop computers are much larger projects than your typical smartphone app that you can get off of Android. There's only so much quality programming that individual programmers can do without releasing their code to others. So sure, make Android apps available to desktop systems, but force the individual developers to let their code be reviewed!

Paying apps comes first,

Anonymous's picture

Paying apps comes first, then someone release a free one that do the job and we forget about paying ones... Just have to wait, just have to live.

Balance is the most

Anonymous's picture

Balance is the most important part between free and proprietary.
a 50/50 will be a good environment and everyone benefits.

Freedom is better.

twitter's picture

Android shows the march of free software into a traditionally hostile area and is not a threat to free software on the desktop. Obsolete spectrum monopolies are the only reason people are forced to use non free platforms in their communications devices. The rise of linux in these devices shows that non free software is simply not competitive, even if makers and telco companies avoid passing along freedom with linux. If free software can take over a market as hostile as telco, there's no market it won't conquer. The trick will be to keep your freedom.

There is no balance between free and non free. You either have software freedom or you don't.

Hell yeah, amen! As the

robertneville777's picture

Hell yeah, amen! As the saying goes, there's no substitute for victory.

Apps should be open code

LS's picture

It's OK for developers to charge a fee but applications should be open code so they can be modified, improved and enhanced for security. More eyeballs = better code
Nothing worse than security by obscurity like with the closed software world. Developers can capitalize being the expert on their particular contribution in modifying and enhancing software for a fee.

Proprietary software are even more scaring on phones than on PC

markit's picture

Well, having my phone run something I've no idea what is doing, inside a smartphone that can track my position, connect to internet, do a lot of things, is REALLY scaring.
I've a G1, and I've been shocked by the (almost) lack of GPL software that runs on it.
The Google Market does not even let you filter by Free / Non Free license!
I'll keep my G1, with CyanoMod modded Free firmware, since other options are even more close, but I'm far from being satisfied.
I.e. google calendar is a shame (you will not hear it beep when the event you set arrives, nor it will repeat the allarm...) but since is proprietary software by google, can't be patched to make it useful!
I've donated some money to Cyano, and I've no fear to pay for Free Software, I just want to stay away as much as I can from proprietary one.

Proprietary software are even more scaring on phones than on PC

markit's picture

Well, having my phone run something I've no idea what is doing, inside a smartphone that can track my position, connect to internet, do a lot of things, is REALLY scaring.
I've a G1, and I've been shocked by the (almost) lack of GPL software that runs on it.
The Google Market does not even let you filter by Free / Non Free license!
I'll keep my G1, with CyanoMod modded Free firmware, since other options are even more close, but I'm far from being satisfied.
I.e. google calendar is a shame (you will not hear it beep when the event you set arrives, nor it will repeat the allarm...) but since is proprietary software by google, can't be patched to make it useful!
I've donated some money to Cyano, and I've no fear to pay for Free Software, I just want to stay away as much as I can from proprietary one.

Remind me please...

Badger's picture

Remind me please why coders are working without pay, to produce free apps for a phone produced by a multi-billion dollar search engine/advertising company, which phone will be bought by business-types who are well-enough paid to afford a smart-phone in the first place.

I care more about the

Jose_X's picture

I care more about the desktop, but I'm sure similar motivations for people to code FOSS for the desktop will lead them to code for gadgets (or to port there).

Short-term maybe proprietary will dominate, but over time FOSS will establish itself. Remember, when you enjoy what you do, "it's ready when it's ready." Lot's of people are likely going crazy to make a buck but that euphoria will die down.


Glyn Moody's picture

they might enjoy the challenge, they might do it for fun, or because they want people to enjoy their work. That's not to say they *have* to do that, but there are definitely people who want to.

I guess your chest swell

Badger's picture

I guess your chest swell with pride as Brin, Page, and various venture capitalists get richer and richer, while you get the satisfaction of knowing that you volunteered your skill for the sake of helping them become a little wealthier still.

That's pretty sad. With all the things wrong in the world, the best you can do is donate time and energy to making the rich even richer? Well, perhaps they will give some to charity, eh?

yes, maybe it *is* sad...

Glyn Moody's picture

...that you get all the satisfaction, and that all they get is even more money...

Yes, maybe it 'is' sad...

Anonymous's picture

I'm a proponent of free software when I can get it. I'm a fan of Linux and other open source. What I do not agree with, though, is all of the whining about a lack of free or open source applications for phones accompanying crying about making the rich richer. First, programming puts food on the table for a great many people. If they want to sell their work as opposed to giving it to me, that is entirely within their right. Also, if people are that worried about the rich, become one yourself. People constantly whine about the greed of the rich, but there are far more people who aren't rich than there are rich. And I don't see very many of those people who aren't envious of the money of the rich. I'd say there's far more greed on this side of the rich/poor divide than there is at the top.

The flaw in your reasoning

Anonymous's picture

The flaw in your reasoning is that being poor is not a choice that people make. The vaste majority of people would choose "rich" over "poor" if it were a choice. The masses being poor is a consequence of the oppression in our society forced on 99.9% of the population buy the .1% who are rich.

The Need for Free Software

Bill Day's picture

The need for Free Software has everything to do with developers and users' freedom and very little to do with commercialization. In my opinion, as an end user, it also results in better software. I'm with Glyn on this one. Given, for example, the huge number of free (as in beer) apps on the iPhone, why shouldn't developers go one better and make the apps free (as in speech) as well on either the iPhone or the Droid. I part company with RMS on the point that software should necessarily be free (in either sense), but I think Glyn has repeatedly said that he is not trying to curb commercial apps, just encourage Free apps. Amen!

I don't understand how

Jean Pierre Rupp's picture

The success of Google Android is a success story of an open source platform. I don't see how it can be compared with iPhone, which is a completely closed platform, even if it's Linux-like.

For the applications, well, if the users chose open source software to run on their androids the better. But the fact that they're running an open source platform, means success already.

New Google Android firmwares will appear, more oriented towards open source, with open source application libraries. People then will decide what to use.

But don't fool yourself, Android is an open source success, it's the opposite to a threat to open source.

I agree the OS will remain

Anonymous's picture

I agree the OS will remain opened source so everyone can develop their applications on it. With todays economy we should have some closed source applications. ALso look at red hat and fedora, just cause red hat costs fedora is their R&D distro, so am sure some complex apps may go the same route. Having open source OS and being able to develop on it is great. Look at windows for you to develop on the windows plat form cost money to access the OS, also android ca have kernel bugs worked out since the source is there. I think it is a good thing regardless.

To Pay or Not To Pay...

Fred in IT's picture

I agree with John RE: Bassackwards...

If the developer wants to charge for the app, it's their prerogative. If RSM want's to give it away for free, that's his as well.

You don't like to pay for it, make an OSS play for it.

If you don't like to pay for it, don't.

The freedom RMS is talking about is the freedom to choose. Not the freedom from fees. In the end, everyone has to put food on the table, clothes on the backs and a roof over your head. John Lennon's 'Imagine' is a nice ideal to strive for. But, until that happens you still have to pay the bills.

The world is truly big enough for OSS (mostly free, mostly open), Microsoft (hit or miss on what's free and what's open) and Apple (Fort Knox is the local hot-dog cart in comparison).

At home, to be honest, I'm switching from OSS (OpenSuse) to Microsoft's WHS simply because I'm tired of doing my day-job - sysadmin - at home. The cool Benjamin I'll be spending w/ MS more than makes up for the time I will have with the wife and kid.

What will really turn everything on it's head is when your mobile device is just a thin client - there are no 'apps' on it. Everything is SaaS. Down to the tool you use to dial the numbers.

I agree

Glyn Moody's picture

see my comment below: I'm concerned about the absence of open source, not the presence of paid for.

Quit complaining...

Fred in IT's picture

Quit complaining, write an app and post it for free.

Unless I'm missing something fundamental in the Android App Store - in that you have to pay for an app - all apps - I don't seen anything that prevents you or anyone else from taking the lead here.

I completely agree with the

Anonymous's picture

I completely agree with the other posters - having a market to sell proprietary apps for Android will only help open source. After all, open source is about freedom, and not destroying closed-source app developers. But if there are a large number of closed-source apps then I am almost certain that the open source will follow. And there are a number of open source apps out there for Android - they may not be advertised as such but they are. I use a couple like sipdroid and andnav2 - I'm not sure they publicise the fact that they are OSS but they are...

Since when did OS preclude commercialization?

ChronoFish's picture

"...And that's where the problems start. As far as I can tell, the majority of these apps are closed source...... a popular system built on top of Linux, but running closed-source apps...."

Nothing builds up Open Source platforms like developers making money off of it. When you have a collective group that depends on an Open Source project, that OS project becomes stronger because of all the support (bug fixes, enhancements contributed back, even charitable donations to keep the project alive).

May of the large OS projects make way to commercial products: MySQL had an "Enterprise" edition, PHP was enhanced (and sold) by Zend, WRT software is enhanced by Wireless Router manufactures, RedHat's SELinux, and the gobs and gobs of Linux hardware/software that is embedded in products off the shelf.

Commercial packages on an Open Source platform is nothing new. It's even written into some OS licenses that " may be altered and sold....". What's new is the number of tech writers whom haven't a clue about what Open Source really is who must now report on it....


it didn't and doesn't...

Glyn Moody's picture

I'm not knocking the paid-for apps, just that there don't seem to be many open source ones (there must be some, but they're certainly not easy to find). It's the lack of OSS, not the presence of paid-for that I see as problematic.

At the end of the day,

Anonymous's picture

At the end of the day, "freedom to choose" must encompass the choice to release commercial software as well as OSS software- or else it's not really a free choice. There's nothing /prohibiting/ Android developers from producing OSS software for the platform, so the problem here is not really Android, so much as the lack of OSS developers writing apps for it.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to make money off your hard work. People have a right to claim what they make as their own as well, regardless of what RMS and co think, and the right to dispose of their source as they see fit. As someone who has released both free and non-free software, I know which one pays for my food, and it's not the one with the "Donate" button gathering endless dust in the corner...

Free will come

Anonymous's picture

I'm not too worried about the closed apps. You can see them as a "gold rush" where the vast majority will fail to be successful but the few that become loved/indispensable will have open clones made of them. Free software developers can rely on the excitement/greed of apps entrepreneurs to experiment and explore the software space then we can follow up with free versions.

That being said I think it is important to be working on even better free toolchains and other tools that make it easier to build free software for Android (i.e. something like Ubuntu's Quickly) if there isn't already something like that. In addition I think we should be pressuring Google to allow for easy voluntary payments (of any amount) for apps so that it is easier for people to support free software developers. That's quite likely something I'll be working on...

interesting points...

Glyn Moody's picture


You guys are bassackwards

jduperon's picture

What the heck, are you guys stupid? The lack of commercial software on Linux has been the factor *hurting* acceptance, not the other way around! If these guys can create a commercial marketplace for apps on Linux, then the game is won. Linux will have the apps to compete and Microsoft and Apple will have to get crackin' or lose a lot of market share.


So what?

markit's picture

Having a OS full of proprietary, closed source, application run the world? Is this your goal? We already have M$Windows, no need to another one.
The real importance of GNU OS is FREEDOM, nothing else, and is something I really do value and care.
If you don't, you'd better use something else (tried Mac OS?).
The "wrong" thing is trying to poison the Freedom with tricks, something too many are trying to do, and since long time ("OpenSource" comes to mind).

that depends...

Glyn Moody's picture

...on what you think you're trying to achieve. If it's just widespread use, then maybe closed source apps are useful. But if, like RMS, you think the key part of free software is the freedom, then getting people to use closed-source apps on an open source stack rather misses the point.

And my main point was not that there are commercial, closed source applications, but that there seem to be almost *no* free software ones. So there's no option for taking the latter route.

As a free software developer

Anonymous's picture

As a free software developer and programmer for non-free mobile apps on Symbian/Windows Mobile, I wouldn't bother writing FLOSS for Android/ChromeOS. There are a variety of factors, some include: Java (give me C or Python or death). Google's allergies to the upstream mantra and the GPL.

Of the mobile platforms, only N900/Maemo and to a lesser extent OpenMoko are even remotely interesting to me as a free software developer. The best part about them both is being able to replace them with a real free software distribution like Debian or Fedora.

100%. Maemo looks much more

Shmerl's picture

100%. Maemo looks much more interesting comparing to Android. While iPhone and Android are hyped, Nokia is building a great system which is still underappreciated by masses. But it's a great platform for developers, and this will be the key factor.