Microsoft, Nokia, and the Importance of Open

Today, Nokia announced that they will be using Windows Phone 7 going forward for their smartphones. This, in all likelihood, decapitates Meego and signals the long-term dissolution of Symbian.

You will note that the only two vaguely-mainstream mobile operating systems that were perhaps more open than Android are Meego and (formerly) Symbian. I say “formerly” due to the utter collapse of the Symbian Foundation, and I say “vaguely-mainstream” because Meego isn’t quite there yet.

Right now, the Big 3 mobile operating systems are shaping up to be Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 7. Blackberry is still substantial but has been fading, and WebOS is still fairly unproven in terms of market penetration.

The problem is that the only one of these that is relatively open is Android.

Lots of people will complain that Android is not open. Some of their specific arguments have merit. OTOH, compared to the major alternatives, Android is a bastion of openness. Could Android be more open? Yes. Are we likely to get something more open out of the other operating systems? Hells no.

Why does open matter? Ask the people of Tunisia or Egypt.

Those comparatively bloodless revolutions were kicked off due to the power of open communication. If you think for a second that the world’s power brokers are going to ignore this, think again.

I want now what I have wanted since getting involved in Android. I want a communications device in my pocket whose firmware has been vetted by somebody with my interests at heart, such as the EFF. And I want that device to be able to run applications that will allow me to communicate with my fellow citizens without interruption or intrusion. And I want it to be realistic for anyone to have one of these devices, and not be automatically flagged as being a subversive as a result.

Is Android that OS? Mostly. There are some Googlisms that would need to be jettisoned as closed-source and therefore uncontrollable. And, of course, not all drivers are available in open source form, including some fairly important drivers, such as radios. Plus, there’s the pesky issue of having to break past the barriers erected by device manufacturers for allowing such vetted firmware to be put on a device.

But we are much, much closer to having something that meets my vision with Android than we are with iOS, or Blackberry, or WebOS, or (shudder) Windows Phone.

Now, I would love it if some other open mobile OS would rise up (e.g., HP open sourcing WebOS), to give us more options. But, right now, this beggar cannot be a chooser.

Yes, Android has its warts, and I even complain about them from time to time. That doesn’t mean that I want Android to fail. On the contrary, today’s announcements mean that Android is more important than ever. If we want 21st century citizen communications, having a truly citizen-safe mobile OS is important, and Android is our best bet for this at the moment.

Or, to look at it another way, if you were fighting a tyrant, would you want to be running Windows Phone?

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