Android for Independence

by Doc Searls

At some point in the early 2000s, I got my wife a Nokia phone with a keyboard, so we could text each other. It was a great little phone, not hard to use or understand, but she texted me only once with it, to send the word "no". Then, in late 2007, not long after the iPhone came out, she told me she wanted one. Why? "Because I can work with it." So we got her one, and she worked it like a chef with a collection of Wüsthofs. A few months later, I got an iPhone 3G. She immediately schooled me on how to use the thing, and she still knows more about texting and other essential iPhone apps than I do. After the iPhone 4 came out in mid-2010, we traded up to those, and that's where we'll stay until our AT&T contract runs out. The plan after that is to replace them with Androids.

We've also been using Androids all along. We got a Nexus One when it came out in 2010, and we've gone through a series of HTCs since then. Our teenage son's phone is an HTC Detail, which is an unlocked version of the HTC Evo Shift 4G. In our now ample experience, the HTC Detail is crap. In fact, every Android phone we've had has failed. But none of those failings has cost us faith in the platform. Lately, that faith has been invested in Samsung's line of smartphones and pads, especially the Note, after envying one over dinner one evening with friends. My wife took one look at it and said, "I can work with that." This is an ominous sign for Apple.

So is "Samsung vs. Apple: Losing My Religion", a column by Barbara Lippert in MediaPost in December 2012. Barbara, who says she belongs to the "cult of Cupertino", heaps praise on Samsung for inspired marketing work at a time when Apple's marketing seems to be going through the motions. But her most damning remark is not about Apple's marketing, but about its flagship device, the iPhone 5. She called it "a bit of a 'meh'".

Let's face it. The iPhone 5 is a stretched iPhone 4s, which is an iPhone 4 with sprinkles. The iPhone 4 came out in mid-2010, so the whole line is pretty old in mobile phone years. There is nothing "gotta have" about the iPhone 5, and there's at least one big deal-killer: Apple's Maps app, which replaces the Google-based one that had come standard with all iPhones and iPads up until iOS 6, which is what the iPhone 5 runs. The Maps app was a huge fail when it came out in September 2012, and it's not noticeably better (to me, at least) in January 2013, when the app still showed no subways in New York, Boston, Paris or London. Its traffic reporting is limited to a few tiny red dotted lines that are easy to miss and appear only on major roads. Google finally came to Apple's rescue in December with an outstanding Maps app for iPhone (and, passive-aggressively, not for iPad). But, with monarchical self-regard, Apple continued bringing up its broken Maps app for searches off linked addresses in Mail, Calendar and Contact. Just today, the Apple Maps app failed to find my eye doctor's address on a main street in Santa Barbara. So I copied the address from the calendar and pasted it into the Google Maps app, which gave me three alternate ways of getting there, all with degrees of traffic listed.

Look back up the road of history, and it's clear that Apple's foot has been off the gas ever since Steve Jobs died. Nearly every new product since then has been an incremental advance of an old one. The only notable exception was the iPad Mini, which should have come out a year or two earlier and still lacks the retina screen featured on the current-generation iPad. At this stage, Apple has two advantages that no other tech-gear maker can match: retail stores and customer service. But those advantages are limited mostly to first-world cities and suburbs. Elsewhere, Apple's mobile devices are bling for the rich. And even for those people, Apple's advantages will matter less and less as the company's mobile products fall farther and farther behind the many curves being paved by competing devices out in the open marketplace. This is too bad, because the horizontally driven open world needs to see what verticalizing closed-system makers like Apple are up to. In The Intention Economy, I explain the symbiosis between the two:

The smartphone business was invented by Nokia and RIM around the turn of the millennium and then royally disrupted by Apple and Google a few years later. Today, Apple and Google define the smartphone business, together, though not always in direct competition. It is important to understand how this works, because the two companies' directions are orthogonal: ninety degrees off from each other. And because they do that, the market for both—and for everybody else as well—is huge.

Apple's punch to the smartphone market was vertical. It came up from below like a volcano and went straight toward the sky. With the iPhone, Apple showed how much invention and innovation the old original equipment manufacturer (OEM)-operator marriage had locked out of the smartphone marketplace, completely redefining the smartphone as a pocket computer that also worked as a phone. iPhones were beautiful, easy to use, and open to a zillion applications that were easy for programmers to write and for users to install.

The Google punch was horizontal. It came from the side, spreading its open Android platform toward the far horizons. As a platform, Android supported everything Apple's iOS did—and more, because it was open to anybody, making it more like geology than a foundation. The old cartels could still build vertical silos on Android, but anybody could build just about anything, anywhere.

So, while Apple shows how high one can pile up features and services inside one big beautiful high-rise of a silo, Google provides a way not only to match or beat Apple's portfolio, but to show how broad and rich the open marketplace can be.

We need innovation in both directions, but we can't see how complementary these vectors are if we cast the companies innovating in both directions as competitors for just one space. So, while it's true that Apple phones compete with Android-based phones straight up, it's also true that Apple makes phones and Google doesn't. And, while it's true that iOS and Android compete for developers, iOS runs only on Apple devices; there is no limit to the number and variety of devices that run on Android. In the larger picture here, Apple and Google are stretching the market in orthogonal directions. The result is a bigger marketplace for both and for everybody else who depends on smartphones.

I wrote that in late 2011, in faith that Apple would continue to break new ground in the vertical direction. Sadly, it hasn't (or barely). But ground is being broken in all directions horizontally (as well as some vertical ones) on Android.

The direction that interests me most is toward personal independence, both from and to. We need independence from phone companies, which continue to contain what we imagine can be done with connected mobile devices. And we need independence to do what we please, as free and fully empowered human beings.

Toward both ends on the hardware side, I am encouraged by Ubuntu for Phones and Ubuntu for Android, even though both are being pitched to corporate developers. I also like seeing custom ROMs for Google's Nexus 7. The reason there's an after-market for Nexus hardware is that Google designed the line to be open and generative from the start. As the copy boasts, it's "unlocked and contract free".

On the software side, I want to see tools that give each of us ways to take control of the Internet of Things and of API-based services. For that, I believe we need to be able to do our own programming, in the simplest and most uncomplicated ways possible. In fact, I see personal programming as the latest in a series of revolutions in which individuals have gained huge advances in power. In each of these following cases, individuals could do far more than could companies and large organizations:

  1. Computing, thanks to the PC.

  2. Communications, thanks to the Internet.

  3. Portable computing and communications, thanks the smartphone.

  4. Programming, with...well, that's what's next. Read on.

We need to be able to program stuff in our own lives and in how we interact with two other domains—and to do so independently, outside the control of any centralized entity or service:

  1. The Internet of Things.

  2. The portfolio of API-based services that are what large organizations need to become, whether they like it or not.

It's very early in the future that will grow here, but there are some early efforts that should invite our interest.

The best known (and funded, far as I know) is IFTTT, which stands for "if this, then that". It lets you make connections between "channels" that are actually Web services, through those services' APIs. "Each Channel has its own Triggers and Actions", IFTTT explains:

The this part of a Recipe is a Trigger. Some example Triggers are "I'm tagged in a photo on Facebook" or "I check in on Foursquare." The that part of a Recipe is an Action. Some example Actions are "send me a text message" or "create a status message on Facebook". Pieces of data from a Trigger are called Ingredients. For example, the Ingredients of an Email Trigger could be: subject, body, attachment, received date and the sender's address. Personal Recipes are a combination of a Trigger and an Action from your active Channels. Personal Recipes look like this: "if Any new photo by (your handle) then Add file from URL to (your handle's) Dropbox."

Less well-known, but no less interesting, is on{x} a Microsoft effort targeted (yes) at Android devices. Still in beta, it "lets you control and extend the capabilities of your Android phone using a JavaScript API to remotely program it". It currently requires a Facebook login, which annoys me, but at this early stage, I'll forgive it.

Last (but far from least) is the growing suite of tools, concepts and services that have been rolling out of Kynetx for the last several years. The open-source side is the language KRL and a rules engine. Phil Windley is the Linus of both, and he describes KRL this way: "KRL is a language that is designed to help programmers build and understand distributed, persistent data objects (PDOs) that live in the cloud and interact, primarily, through events. Collections of these PDOs form what I've frequently referred to as a personal cloud." These clouds can be hosted by one's self or at a service. They are, as Phil describes them, operating systems of one's own, with a "core set of services around identity, data and communications, as well as a programming model." Early applications of this model have me more excited than I've been in years. My wife too, and she's no techie. Take a look at SquareTag, for example.

KuppingerCole has a term I like for the category being built out here: Life Management Platforms. Hey, better to manage our own lives in the networked world than to be managed by the likes of Apple, mobile-phone companies or Google (which, let's remember, is an advertising company and takes advantage of its position with Android to watch much of what we're doing).

Given Android's overwhelming and growing success as a smartphone and tablet platform, it's obviously the bulls-eye toward which this kind of development should be targeted. Yes, it's not as open as many of us would like. For example, the latest SDK requires agreement to a nonfree license—though reportedly "to give Google the power to enforce the free software licenses of the components, if a third-party tries to break them." But, building on a majority OS is a nice place to start, especially when the market we're addressing is everybody.

I'm curious to see if, and how, readers dig some of the software developments I visit above—and, better yet, how nontechnical friends and spouses take to them. Listen for the magic line: "I can work with that."