Four days ago I blogged about upgrading my old G-1 to CyanogenMOD and complained that the mod’s home site contained no high-level overview of the modding process to help pepople understand all the details in the modding instructions for individual devices.
It took some days of research, but I have now fixed that problem. I had that narrative description reviewed by experts on the IRC #cyanogenmod IRC channel while I was writing it, so it’s an outsider view with insider correctness.
In other news, see Android’s Share Of Mobile Web Use Soaring, iPhone Falling. If that share is tracking installed base accurately, Android installed base will pass iOS’s sometime between the beginning of December 2010 and mid-February 2011. This is just mildly more pessimistic than my forecast months ago of a crossover in 4Q2010, but it also needs bearing in mind that iOS webshare includes iPads as well as iPhones, and iPads don’t yet have effective competition. Thus the usage figures probably underestimate the rate of share decline for iPhones alone.
All indications continue to be that the iPhone is collapsing towards the same status of high-margin niche product with single-digit market share that has been the historic norm for Apple. The Apple fanboys who think that smooth UI and industrial design trump freedom from vendor lock-in and everything else (and champion the walled-garden content model!) have a lot more crow still to eat. I expect to enjoy every second of serving it to them.
The dirty little secret about Google Android suggests that Android’s triumph may not be a good thing after all. In its reading of events, the withdrawal of the Nexus One signals that Google is allowing cellphone carriers to seize back the power over feature lists that it seemed to be claiming with the announcement of the Android 2.2 feature list. And it’s true that some Android devices now have unhelpful carrier customizations that lock out features like USB tethering and lock in crapware apps that users might qet to delete.
Months ago, I thought that Google walking away from a deal with Verizon meant that Google was going to get tough with the carriers about not crippling Android 2.2. I may have been wrong about that, or right at the time but something has changed in their calculations since. They’re not resisting feature deletion and crapware with the intensity I expected then.
While this is cause for concern, it’s not yet time for alarm. I pointed out in Flattening the Smartphone Market, five months ago, that what’s really dangerous to the carriers is comparability of product. When customers start asking questions like “Sprint Android has tethering, why don’t I?” and “Why have you blocked me from deleting apps that you privileged?” vendor attempts to control features are living on borrowed time, whatever Google does or doesn’t do.
The existence of aftermarket upgrades like CyanogenMod for phones produced in huge volumes sharpens the edge of that blade by making unlocked, user-controlled phones a reality. Projects like OpenMoko’s FreeRunner are worthy and wonderful but can’t capture the economies of scale that come from expected production runs in the hundreds of millions; thus they’re doomed to remain expensive niche toys for hackers. CyanogenMOD is more effective because it co-opts the commercial success of Android and the financial mass of the handset manufacturers.
Which brings me back to CyanogenMOD documentation. Anything that lowers the barrier to installing that mod on mass-market phones increases the pressure on the carriers. The amount of grief they can inflict on their customers via Android customization is now bounded above by the hassle cost of installing CyanogenMOD. By making that installation easier, I have directly attacked their lock-in.
Are Google’s strategic planners counting on efforts like CyanogenMOD to help fight their corner? You betcha. They learned how to think about the open-source long term from me (I still have Larry and Sergei’s fanmail from 1998 to prove that), and they’re not stupid. If I can see where product comparability is leading, I’m bound to assume that so can they – and it recommends a very Taoist strategy. That is, rather than fight the carrier oligopoly for openness directly, give them enough rope to hang themselves with – and let their customers do the actual hanging.