Android Tablet, Open Source and First Impressions
I’d like to begin by saying my boss is a Machead and loves anything Apple. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking it, at home, I’ve switched to all Mac myself but I’m simply trying to paint you a picture of my work environment. About a month ago he completely blew my socks off when he handed me an Acer A500 Iconia Tablet running Android. I was shocked, because a year earlier I asked if my company issued mobile phone could be Android and I was told, no way! I’m sure you’ve already figured out we’re an iPhone shop and as far as tablets go, it’s a sea of iPads. In any case I was pleasantly surprised, it’s not every day your boss buys you new toys.
As you may or may not know, Android has its roots firmly planted in Linux. The Android platform is an operating system for mobile devices and is jointly developed by the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of 80 hardware, software and telecommunications companies. Interestingly, Google released the Android Open Source Project under the Apache License, rejecting the GPL. Currently Android uses a fork of the 2.6 Linux Kernel with layers of middleware, libraries and API’s creating an application development framework. So far it’s the 2nd largest mobile application platform next to Apple’s iOS. It’s been estimated more than 250,000 applications are currently available in the Android Market. That is quite impressive given Apple’s App Store dominance. And that brings me to my main criticism and area of concern when it comes to Android development; security.
When Apple introduced the App Store and its ‘draconian’ approval process, many critics (including myself) came out swinging. But I guess it’s true what they say, hindsight is 20/20. I say that because after using Apple’s App Store through my iPhone for years and more recently Android’s Market I find myself reluctantly agreeing with Apple’s approach. At least from the consumer’s perspective. I strongly believe Apple is heavy handed with its developer’s and its approval process screams censorship. But the overall user experience is significantly superior in Apple’s App Store. Perhaps I’m too sensitive to security matters but when browsing Android Market applications I found myself questioning and 2nd guessing myself; “do I really need this app, who is this developer, can I trust him, will this app infect me with malware, will this app steal my information?” compare that to Apple’s App Store and none of those questions ever crossed my mind. I’m not simply referring to free applications, similar questions were raised with paid Market applications unless the developer was familiar to me.
Google has promised an Open Market, with no censorship or rigorous formal review process. A developer simply pays’ their $25 developer fee and their application virtually instantaneously is published to the Market. That’s not too say there are no guidelines and requirements developers must adhere to. And in fact Market applications have been banned for breaking Market, Google and Carrier terms. But ultimately when it comes down to it, you really have no idea what you’re getting. I believe this to be the fundamental problem with Android’s Market.
To date Google has expelled hundreds of malware laced applications and well known Security vendors like Kaspersky Labs discovered one of the first Android attacks posing as a Media Player. Once installed it would silently send SMS messages to premium Russian numbers. At a cost of several dollars per text message, it had the potential of earning its developer thousands. This type of attack is the tip of an ever increasing iceberg. This is just one example, with many more to come. Security professionals are calling for Google to clean up its Market before things get out of control. Will Google listen, only time will tell.
Okay, we know how you feel about the Market, but what about Android itself and the tablet. Let me preface by saying Honeycomb 3.0 is a viable iOS competitor. I found the user experience, rough around the edges but that is only because Honeycomb (Google’s Tablet optimized version of Android) is new. Device crashes, applications misbehaving, and a me-too user experience left me somewhat satisfied but in the end always looking across my shoulder at the iPad. If you’ve never used an iPad I think Android is a good alternative platform, but once you’ve been spoiled by iOS and Apple’s App Store experience the transition to Android can be challenging. Android released Honeycomb 3.2 not too long ago and they are promising, a merging of 3.x and 2.x Android releases to a single product they affectionately call the Ice Cream Sandwich slated to be released in 2012. This is great, I like the look and feel of Honeycomb and I’m sure 4.0 will be even better but the other major problem I see with Android is fragmentation.
Because Android is licensed to many different cell carriers Worldwide, competition is based on differentiation thus each has the ability to customize the user experience by tweaking Android’s look and feel. Then of course custom carrier applications are thrown into the mix. In the end you have a plethora of different Android software versions. The result is new Android releases may not always translate into quick end user available updates. Partially because carriers must test and optimize their customizations before they can push new features to users. This of course takes, time and effort. In the end, users are left in the dust, needing a hardware upgrade before they get new Android features.
Acer’s Iconia A500 is a nice looking tablet, it feels great with some weight to it, but overall I like the hardware a lot. Honeycomb, looks and feels great. Battery life is surprisingly good. However it’s a mixed bag. On a recent family vacation I flew Delta and they offer In-Flight WiFi. With the Iconia in hand I browsed the Internet, checked my email, read articles and even watched a movie, however outside the Airplane I wished 3G was an option, WiFi is not always avaialble. It takes nice pictures, video capture is good too. But in the end it’s the apps that make or break a device. Some applications are just not available on the Android, and combine that with the security issues at play in the Market, software fragmentation and Cell Carrier bloatware you have a contender on crutches. Despite the challenges for a first tablet experience I’m satisfied. However, I would like to go out on a limb and make a prediction. Android’s Market must be tamed soon, or the Android platform as a whole will suffer. In a way Android’s current security is reminding me of Microsoft and Windows in the 90′s. Let’s keep our fingers crossed history won’t repeat itself.