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September 1st, 2014

The Trouble With Android

I hope there are no marketers in heaven, who create demand for profit while claiming they’re only “giving the public what they want.”

What would you do if you were offered a choice between a carrot or a bar of candy? I don’t know about you, but I’m taking the candy, even though I definitely really, really need the carrot’s vitamins, roughage and other goodness and don’t need the candy at all. But if you were to sit a carrot next to me, it probably wouldn’t get eaten — ever. Set a candy bar down next to me, however, and I’ll resist it for all of five minutes.

Android logoSo why wouldn’t I eat the carrot? Because candy bars are too easy to come by. So are burgers, fries and shakes. They all feed unhealthy addictions and creating addictions, then feeding them, is central to our economy and is what keeps the fat cats fat. Even though I know this, I’ll grab the candy bar, the Little Debbie’s Zebra Cake or the “all the way” cheeseburger when what I really need is a pear or an apple.

Again, given the choice between a carrot or candy, a nice gooey chocolate bar perhaps, which would you choose? I’m betting that most of you are like me.

This is where unrestrained “giving the public what they want” has led, in all areas of human commerce. Even things that are supposed to be good for us are turned into candy. Look at ingredients on processed foods, for example. Or surf the Internet, which was originally envisioned as a way of bringing the accumulated knowledge of human history into our homes, but which is now mainly eye candy trying to sell us stuff we don’t need.

Everything the marketers touch, they try to take over.

Even Linux. In 2012, Ubuntu began displaying Amazon “suggestions” in search results in an attempt to earn some cash. Although this “feature” became opt-in with the release of Trusty Tahr in April, it was originally set to include Amazon results by default. Ubuntu is far from being the worst offender in Linux land, however. That distinction probably goes to Android.

Don’t get me wrong, Android is a beautiful operating system if ever there was one – and dumbed down to the max, which makes it even more beautiful in the minds of many mobile users. Indeed, you can play on an Android device all day without ever even realizing that you’re working with an operating system or even a computer. Just swipe away and see what they’ll try to sell you next.

It’s candy. It’s not good for you.

At my house we have a second generation Nexus 7. I don’t use it at all, but my roommate depends on it. Again, it’s a beautiful OS, stable and easy to use, but it’s all about selling things. In fact, you can’t even enter the app store without going through a screen that nags you to make a deposit in case you find an app you want to buy — and a way of saying “no thanks, I’m just looking for free apps” isn’t as obvious as it should be.

Like the Internet, Android is primarily a marketing tool designed by Google, which is primarily a marketing company.

Unfortunately, even if we were to replace Android with something else, say Ubuntu Touch or Firefox OS, this wouldn’t change much.

If and when Ubuntu gets traction in mobile, there’s little doubt it’ll be just bad as Android. Canonical’s purpose is profit; Linux is only a means to that end. Dollars to doughnuts, if Canonical ever becomes a player in the mobile market, they’ll be working hard to help the marketers leverage their product for profit.

Firefox OS, which is gaining traction outside the U.S., might be a little better, as it’s doubtful that Mozilla will build nag screens attempting to get the user to spend money into the OS. However, most of the apps will still be all about marketing.

A look at the impressive list of apps available on the Firefox Marketplace reveals that they’re primarily the same apps that are available for Android and iOS. At least with Firefox, almost all apps are free, but just because an app doesn’t cost money doesn’t mean there’s not a price to pay.

However, there is a big difference between what Mozilla is offering with its mobile OS and what Google offers with Android. The purpose of Android is marketing while the purpose of Firefox OS is delivering content. Given the fact that Firefox can still be easily used as a marketing tool might seem to make that distinction moot — but to me the difference is huge.

But how can the Firefox OS’s carrot compete with Android’s candy in a world where people have been taught to feed their addictions?

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

18 comments to The Trouble With Android

  • Mike

    People need education about what that “candy bar” app is doing to them, their privacy and security.

    Unfortunately that is about as popular as educating people about the virtues of healty eating.

    I have an Android phone but the only apps I run are GPL licensed.

  • Marc Draco

    I’ve been saying this for quite a while now – but it seems that it’s only quite recently that people are starting to catch on. It’s not so much that Google invades our privacy, it’s the WAY it does it: so two faced.

    Don’t be evil (apparently) in Googlespeke actually means don’t present people with annoying pop-ups, pop-unders and such.

    Insisting people allow the company to track them, their phone calls, SMSs, locations and pretty much anything else it can harvest – and that includes images sent in private emails now … is par for the course.

    I was happy when it was a search engine; but it’s just too personal now.

    Android is a dog: and although there are a FEW attempts to unlock it from open source, the vast majority of users are either (a) screwed because their hardware isn’t supported or (b) completely unaware that Google is making fools of them.

    The Internet is supposed to be free (as in freedom) but Facebook, Twitter and Google combined (surprise, they’re ALL American) are stealing it from right under the world’s noses.

  • tracyanne

    quote:: Again, given the choice between a carrot or candy, a nice gooey chocolate bar perhaps, which would you choose? I’m betting that most of you are like me. ::quote

    I’m only like you Christine, if you choose the carrot.

  • Abdel

    If we can do nothing about it, let’s at least hope for the best. When nothing else works, hope and optimism can do wonders. After all and according to quantum physics, we are vibrational beings living in a vibrational universe and what we can’t achieve through action, we can easily achieve through positive attitude.

  • archuser

    I use archlinux and non-smart phone.

  • lozz

    On my computers, I treat Google like rat poison and eliminate every trace of it at each fresh install.

    I set my browsers to reject it where ever possible(Google Disconnect, No Google Analytics, Ghostery, etc).

    I have never had a mobile phone.

  • Mike


    I use Debian and I’ve been considering trying Arch but there’s one thing I can’t find any information on:

    With Debian it is very clear I am running a completely free system as software with restrictive licenses is separated into a different repository. Keeping my system on the main repository ensures no non-free software can creep into my system either directly or as a dependency. This allows me the freedom to explore and test software without having to worry about the individual license on each piece.

    I cannot see any such separation with Arch. How can I, for example, run an Arch system and casually install applications I am not familiar with and still ensure my system remains 100% free? Is it even possible? That is Debian’s number one feature in my opinion.

  • If the general purpose is to use a browser to access content, then I will always choose Android over FirefoxOS. With Android, I can install and update Mozilla Firefox web browser. With FirefoxOS web browser updates are part of system updates that are controlled by the OEM. If a security update comes out for Firefox, an Android user can just update their installed version of Firefox and be done. On FirefoxOS, the user has no such control and is beholded to an OEM that has very little incentive to provide updates for more than a few months at most.

  • Duncan

    @ Mike:

    I’m a gentooer not an arch user so maybe this’ll be of interest, maybe not, but anyway…

    On gentoo there’s a license variable, and each ebuild/package fills it out as appropriate. Then for convenience there are a number of license sets/groups that include all licenses of a particular type.

    For instance, there’s the GPL-COMPATIBLE group and the FSF-APPROVED group which of course includes GPL-COMPATIBLE as well. There’s also OSI-APPROVED, MISC-FREE and a meta-set, FREE-SOFTWARE, that includes FSF-APPROVED, OSI-APPROVED and MISC-FREE. There’s similar document license groups collected under FREE-DOCUMENTS and FREE superset that includes FREE-SOFTWARE and FREE-DOCUMENTS.

    At the other end there’s a EULA group and a BINARY-REDISTRIBUTABLE group that includes FREE and a bunch of others that aren’t free but are redistributable but NOT EULA.

    Then in make.conf you set ACCEPT_LICENSE to as many or as few as you wish. The default is “* -EULA”, basically allowing anything that doesn’t require specific manual agreement, but for those like me (and you) that are concerned about software freedom, it’s also possible to start with -* and add groups or individual licenses as you wish.

    That’s of course the global setting. As with pretty much everything else on gentoo, you can override the global setting per-package if you wish.

    FWIW there’s also the bindist USE flag. Any package with parts that may not be binary redistributable in some cases (like firefox with both its normal branding and gentoo patches, or various packages that have patent claims on parts of their code) will normally have this flag available. With USE=bindist set, those packages will build without whatever restricted component. With it unset, they may build with the restricted component directly, or some other flag (say for particular codecs) may control that. Thus, USE=bindist acts as a safety that will shut components off if there’s a question. Again, there’s the global USE flag setting, and individual package overrides should you decide you need them for whatever reason.

    Of course that points out an interesting difference between source-based distros such as gentoo and binary-based distros. For arguably patent-encumbered code in particular but also in certain other cases, at least under US legal code it’s often legal to distribute sources as they’re covered by free speech or are otherwise unrestricted, while distributing binaries is considered infringement. The potential patent infringement then becomes the responsibility of the individual who chooses to build and distribute and/or run the binary, which of course means if you’re out of the area where that patent applies, you can do as you wish.

    The same general principle gives gentoo more leaway with GPL covered code as well — as long as they’re only distributing the sources. If they create and distribute a LiveImage such as the gentoo installer, for instance, then the various provide-source requirements apply for the GPL-licensed binaries on that distributed LiveImage, but for packages where only source is distributed in the first place, a lot of the restrictions and legal requirements that apply to binary redistributors simply don’t apply.

    Hopefully that’s helpful. =:^)


  • Mike


    Thanks! After your post and some further investigation of Arch, Gentoo seems more in line with what I want. Arch seems to take an “It works, so who cares?” approach that I don’t like.

    Quoted from The Arch Way at the Arch wiki: “The large number of packages and build scripts in the various Arch Linux repositories also support freedom of choice, offering free and open source software for those who prefer it, as well as proprietary software packages, for those who embrace functionality over ideology. It is the user who chooses.”

    It speaks of freedom of choice, but that requires the means to make an INFORMED choice. To me it sounds like the The Arch Way considers people who want to avoid proprietary software as slaves to ideology, and certainly not as privacy and security conscious individuals unwilling to blindly trust random code. To me it paints the Arch devs as either uncaring or uneducated with regard to very real issues surrounding proprietary software. Lumping free and proprietary software together without an easy way of separating them prior to installation is a disservice to those who care about the distinction and makes it harder to educate others as to what those differences may be and mean. If such a way to filter exists, then I apologize in advance, but as it stands I don’t see it.

  • bish

    I use Seamonkey, the browser the mozilla foundation was named for and then kinda got bored of maintaining.

    I DO NOT look to anything Firefox to save me, as I suspect they’ll get bored before it’s done.

  • Marc

    I have to admit to being rather taken with Midori. Seems quite true to its roots and Google probably doesn’t like me using it which is a bonus.

  • Colonel Panik

    Christine Hall are you by any chance related to Larry
    the Free Software Guy?

    While I agree with everything you said and most of what
    the commentators have posted I fear we are all wrong.
    What people are doing with devices that should not even
    be in the world is beyond amazing. Yes, I question the
    morality of the companies that provide this stuff but
    those gadgets are getting the job/s done.

    Not a tech problem at all. It is a people problem just
    like religion or politics. Of course education is the
    answer but education is another people problem, eh?
    Or maybe the whole thing is that I will be 70 in January
    and cannot even remember the names of the apps let alone
    how to use them.

    The Open Source world has as many problems as the corporate
    world. We have all been lead down the path to the Nirvana
    of New = Better.

    Maybe we should go down to the ocean and yell at the tide?

  • There’s a lot of truth there.

    American business and the ultra-rich 1% that created Facebook, Twitter and even Google (dare I say?) have a dominance which now is too large to fail.

    Facebook and Twitter both began with poor business models (none at all in Twitter’s case) and yet managed to spend tens of millions of $s of investors money giving them an advantage that most small (and many large businesses) could only dream of.

    If you throw enough money at a problem the chances are you will solve it.

    All three rely to some extent on Open Source and Google has cynically supported a lot of open source with one hand, while stamping out personal privacy with the other.

    It is buying up any and every service it can use and developing others to aid it. Self driving cars to mobile phones and the rest. It’s all part of Google’s plan to take over the world.

    It’s about who controls the information.

  • Raphael Sanches

    Hi Cristine…
    Sorry but I have to disagree with you on:

    ANDROID X UBUNTU TOUCH: No doubt Canonical will push it for profit at all, but, since it will be 100% Open Source (something Android is not) that won’t make any difference, after all Open Source means I can do it “my way” and not just “the company’s way”…. I believe that Ubuntu Touch will finally deliver a true Linux OS on mobile, 100% Open and “fork-able”, just like it’s desktop version.

    FIREFOX: it is limited by nature and their goals are exactly that: to provide an OS for limited hardware.

    P.S. I don’t see any problem on companys making money out of Linux except when the Open Source part of it is not as deep as they make it seem (Google and it’s locked-in App Ecosystem).

  • marc

    Perhaps the Android, sorry, LINUX core licence should contain something to the effect of this is Open Source software, you are not permitted to use it as a front to steal data from people.

    Because that’s all this system is for in reality.

    Rooting is an option but most people won’t do it because they won’t have the know how and Google is making it progressively harder to do!

  • […] on the first of September I wrote an article about Android, in which I pointed out that Google’s mobile operating system seems to be primarily designed […]

  • […] The Trouble With Android by Christine Hall. Published September 1, 2014. Can an operating system that is primarily designed […]