Technology

BEST OF THE WEB: Why Google Android isn’t as open as it used to be

Andrew Sadauskas /

When it comes to being an open platform, Android is just not what it used to be.

Ron Amadeo from Ars Technica argues the more successful the operating system and platform has become, the more Google has exerted its control.

Android was originally created by Google as a defensive move to prevent Apple from locking it out of the mobile app and ad market:

Six years ago, in November 2007, the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) was announced. The original iPhone came out just a few months earlier, capturing people’s imaginations and ushering in the modern smartphone era… Google was terrified that Apple would end up ruling the mobile space. So, to help in the fight against the iPhone at a time when Google had no mobile foothold whatsoever, Android was launched as an open source project.

The decision to create an open source smartphone operating system allowed many mobile phone manufacturers – including Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony and Motorola – could use it to power their devices.

However, as the platform grew more successful, the open nature of Android created the risk that one of its hardware partners would create its own version – without Google.

If a company forks Android, the OS will already be compatible with millions of apps; a company just needs to build its own app store and get everything uploaded. In theory, you’d have a non-Google OS with a ton of apps, virtually overnight. If a company other than Google can come up with a way to make Android better than it is now, it would be able to build a serious competitor and possibly threaten Google’s smartphone dominance. This is the biggest danger to Google’s current position: a successful, alternative Android distribution.

One of the ways Google has tried to lock hardware makers into using its version of Android is to replace the open source apps that originally came with it with its own, proprietary apps and services:

There have always been closed source Google apps. Originally, the group consisted mostly of clients for Google’s online services, like Gmail, Maps, Talk, and YouTube. When Android had no market share, Google was comfortable keeping just these apps and building the rest of Android as an open source project. Since Android has become a mobile powerhouse though, Google has decided it needs more control over the public source code.

Google’s tightening grip had a nasty side-effect for consumers –mobile phone manufacturers have increasingly resorted to adding their own apps and skins to Android:

Many OEMs view bloatware as an important strategic fallback—a “Plan B”—for if things ever get really bad. If Google does something out of line and an OEM is forced to leave, the company needs at least something to show prospective customers. OEMs include them with their shipping phones—because, hey, why not?—and gain valuable feedback. While this creates redundancy and adds to user confusion, a few users might even like the OEM’s version of a core app.

Of course, as Amadeo points out, Google has a few other tricks up its sleeve to keep users and hardware makers loyal. And with smartphones and tablets now a multi-billion dollar industry, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.

How the public relations industry is unintentionally killing Wikipedia

One of the pioneers of the crowdsourcing movement has been Wikipedia, the nearly ubiquitous encyclopaedia that anyone can edit.

While it has a reputation for not always being the most accurate website on the internet, a number of safeguards have meant it has remained a valuable resource for anyone wanting a quick-and-dirty explanation of a topic.

However, according to Martin Robbins from Motherboard, the free encyclopaedia faces a new threat from the public relations industry that is undermining its very existence:

The king of these Wikipedia reputation managers is a company called Wiki-PR, that specializes in editing Wikipedia on behalf of their paying clients. The promise on their Twitter profile couldn’t be clearer: “We write it. We manage it. You never worry about Wikipedia again.”

Just like social media marketers on Facebook or SEO experts on Google, it’s no secret Wikipedia has long been the target of public relations firms.

However, what makes this new breed of Wikipedia PR reps are claiming access to something their predecessors haven’t had: Administrator status:

Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but only a carefully vetted few are promoted to admin status on the site. Once in place, they have the ability to “block and unblock user accounts and IP addresses from editing, protect and unprotect pages from editing, delete and undelete pages, rename pages without restriction, and use certain other tools,” giving them far greater power than the average user. Some 30-odd thousand people edit Wikipedia every month, but only 1,000 or so admins have been created in the last ten years, and their recruitment rate has shrunk over that time. Wiki-PR isn’t just claiming to edit Wikipedia, it’s openly bragging about access to Wikipedia’s elite.

Robbins argues high level access by PR agents threatens to shake public confidence in the website to its very foundations:

The impact of this could be profound. Wikipedia is the world’s go-to resource for information on everything from the Boer War to fifth-season episodes of Buffy. Its reputation rests on the trust people have in its content, a trust that PR firms are degrading even as they attempt to mine it for their clients. We all know that the site is open to abuse, but until now its unique community of editors have prevailed. With ever more pages and more sophisticated ways to attack the site, however, their efforts are increasingly stretched. In a few years, a significant percentage of Wikipedia’s content could be spam.

The rise of the Wikipedia PR admins is a warning to any small businesses using crowdsourced content as a business model.

Educating the workforce of the future

The world is a rapidly changing place. The rise of smartphones, cloud services, new scientific developments and the ‘always-on’ nature of the digital economy is forever changing our society and how we do business.

So how do we give the kids the kind of education that will allow them to thrive in this new digital landscape?

According to Joshua Davis of Wired, a growing number of experts in a range of fields, including artificial intelligence, believe traditional education models are increasingly irrelevant to the modern workplace:

“The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”

Despite the growing need for team skills and independent thinking in the digital economy, many public education systems are still based on ideas forged for the industrial revolution:

And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”)

So can an education system be created that works to create a new generation of tech geniuses, rather than industrial factory hands? The model to follow might be emerging in the most unlikely of settings – the Mexican city of Matamoros – where a local school is moving away from traditional educational practices:

José Urbina López Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning… Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment”.

David notes the example of one local teacher – Juárez Correa – who has had remarkable success despite a lack of resources, as the school’s national exam scores show:

The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was well above the national average. Then he noticed the math scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. Zavala Hernandez looked over at the top score in the state: It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on his arms stood up. The top score in the entire country was also 921.

The need for employees ready for the modern workplace means the experiment in Matamoros might be one to keep an eye on.

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Andrew Sadauskas

Andrew Sadauskas is a former journalist at SmartCompany and a former editor of TechCompany.

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