Agora phone exposes Android’s Achilles Heel

koganletter.jpg

Thus came the promise of the second Android-based cellphone, from a company you’ve never heard of, whose slogan happens to be “The best value LCD TVs in Australia.”

About a week before the Agora was to ship, however, Kogan Technologies founder Ruslan Kogan announced that it was to be “delayed indefinitely.”

The Agora story is all the more interesting because it underlines the best and the worst of what Android promises: any company can adopt the open source OS to get into the cellphone market and, thus, the Android ecosystem will consist of many disparate and incompatible interests. Ruslan Kogan explains:

This delay comes due to potential future interoperability issues.

The Agora did reach a very late stage of development. Manufacturing had commenced and it was a matter of days from being shipped to you. However, it now seems certain the Agora in it’s current form will limit its compatibility and interoperability in the near future.

One of the potential issues is the screen size and resolution. It seems developers will be creating applications that are a higher resolution than the Agora is currently capable of handling.

How can a company come within days of shipping a crucial product and just happen to discover such a crippling issue? As mind boggling as that question may be, the more troubling concern for the Android world is, can anything be done about it?

Triumph of options

Potentially, most aspects of what makes a phone is an unknown variable in the Android world: screen size/resolution, CPU speed, memory, storage, battery life, and myriad interface options like trackballs, buttons, stylus, touch, multi-touch, physical and virtual keyboards…and any permutation thereof.

To open source advocates this, of course, is a triumph of options. The Wintel world was anchored around the notion that a user could get its OS from Microsoft; PCs from many different manufacturers; video, audio or network cards from yet other sources; and pretty much each app came with its own UI and print driver. While this wild competition expanded markets and drove prices down, it also increased complexity dramatically. So much so that even Microsoft and Intel had to get into the business of reigning in manufacturers with reference designs and compatibility requirements.

And the cacophony

The bankruptcy of this aggregation approach was finally exposed in the sad saga of Microsoft’s Zune. Microsoft, the principal promoter of horizontally aggregated product design, finally admitted the vertically integrated model of tightly coupling hardware, software and service long championed by Apple was inevitable for product innovation. Microsoft dumped its hardware “partners” and went solo with integrated Zune hardware, software, DRM and online store. Here’s how Steve Ballmer explained Microsoft’s recent shift a few months ago in an internal memo:

In the competition between PCs and Macs, we outsell Apple 30-to-1. But there is no doubt that Apple is thriving. Why? Because they are good at providing an experience that is narrow but complete, while our commitment to choice often comes with some compromises to the end-to-end experience. Today, we’re changing the way we work with hardware vendors to ensure that we can provide complete experiences with absolutely no compromises. We’ll do the same with phones—providing choice as we work to create great end-to-end experiences.

Homogenizing competition

For its own business rationale of securing unfettered and increasing access to its online advertising and services, Google is trying to organize what is clearly a disjointed cellphone market under an open source umbrella. From an architectural perspective this is a desirable approach, after all the iPhone has demonstrated the value of integrating hardware, software and services into one coherent offering that is easy to acquire, use and extend.

Unfortunately for Android, this coherence will prove to be difficult to achieve in an open source market. At every step, Android has to worry about accommodating disparate interests, and in turn, participants in the Android ecosystem have to worry about the complexity and variability of the platform. Such variability is necessary to attract diversity of participants but each participant dilutes the coherency of the platform.

Tyranny of choice

The iPhone has climbed to the top of the most popular smartphones in the U.S. with a single model. Except for a very small list of obvious hardware differences between the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple’s mobile platform by now offers a uniform market of 20+ million users, all carrying an identically configured device. Same industrial design, same OS, same multi-touch UI, same iTunes multimedia content, same DRM, same peripherals, same purchasing process, and same coherency that has already resulted in 10,000+ apps and half a billion downloads at the App Store.

iPhone developers do not have to worry about differing UIs or device configurations. They don’t have to accommodate all kinds of input devices from trackballs to multi-touch to stylus. They don’t have to invent their own syncing or notification systems. They don’t have to negotiate for different app stores. And as Kogan found out too late, they don’t have to worry about “compatibility and interoperability in the near future” in the form of varying screen sizes and resolutions.

A delicate balance

This coherence is regarded by many open source advocates as “lock-in.” The open source community seems to value openness more than innovation. In the post-iPhone era, for example, Android (while open source and backed by the largest Internet company) isn’t leading the innovation charge. That honor belongs to Palm (another propriatery, vertically-integrated platform) with its upcoming Pre.

Similarly, Win32 API was proprietary but resulted in the largest app platform ever. Apple’s FairPlay DRM is proprietary but created the largest legal media ecosystem to date. So while the power of proprietary platforms to create large markets has been demonstrated, the ability of open source to create large and lucrative markets coherent enough to attract commercial developers in the consumer markets is yet to be proven.

Ironically, if the iPhone platform can fail to dominate the smartphone market because it’s too closed, the Android platform may fail because it’s too open.

18 thoughts on “Agora phone exposes Android’s Achilles Heel

  1. Pingback: Fragmandroid: Google’s mad dash to Microsoftdom « David's Blog

  2. Er, not trying to be facetious, sorry. >.> It’s just that the WordPress ecosystem has enriched a ton of consultants / webhosts / theme developers, and this site is the primary commercial outlet for the company behind it … for the “consumers” who don’t want to host their own sites. And some technologies that WordPress depends on (Akismet, Gravatars) are closed-source, but when I talked to Matt about that he said he felt those were necessary and it wouldn’t be hard to whip up and open-source alternative to either.

    Just because others — whether marketing VPs or Linux kernel hackers — can’t think of a way to make money from openness doesn’t mean it’s not possible. In fact, the history of the Internet suggests that anything not open dies, like AOL. I expect that where hardware’s concerned this lesson will have to be combined with the one Apple’s taught us … but then, I also expect that the “whose App Store is bigger” contest will eventually be won by the Internet. Which would change the dynamics a bit.

    Maybe the Internet also views closed-source code and proprietary platforms as damage, and routs around them.

  3. So while the power of proprietary platforms to create large markets has been demonstrated, the ability of open source to create large and lucrative markets coherent enough to attract commercial developers in the consumer markets is yet to be proven.

    You realize, of course, that you said this on WordPress.com.

  4. Pingback: Fragmandroid: Google’s mad dash to Microsoftdom « counternotions

  5. Pingback: Android Takes a Hit; Agora Will Not Release Smartphone Running Google’s Open OS | Camera Cellular Phone

  6. Steven: “Every time Apple decides to do things in a way which does not cater to the Mac geeks…”

    Quite.

    A one-time MacUser UK editor, recent Apple-basher and now Ubuntu-convert says he switched because open file format trumps innovation. Nose. Despite. Face.

  7. This is probably a bit off-topic, but it’s quite interesting that it took a Microsoft CEO to explain, not to the Windows world, but to the Mac geeks, in part why Apple does things the way they do. Every time Apple decides to do things in a way which does not cater to the Mac geeks, they scream bloody murder. “Why can’t we put any software we like on the iPhone?” “Why must we have your approval to sell on the App Store?” “Why can’t we replace the batteries on our iPhones or iPods or 17-inch Macbook Pros?” “Why can’t we upgrade and alter and tinker with our iMacs?” I think Ballmer said it best – Apple provides an experience which is narrow and complete. In Apple’s view, you cannot have one without the other, and this is their objective. Of course, Ballmer’s contention that one “can provide complete experiences with absolutely no compromises” is a bit naive – engineering is all about compromise. However, if you seek a “wider” experience, Apple has no problem with you looking elsewhere.

  8. Unfortunately for the open source proponents, closed source has always been the hotbed of innovation because it has always been the source of the most profit.

  9. Luis Alejandro Masanti: I think like you abruptly changed the point of view. You were talking on “one vs. multiple options” and changed to “propietary vs. open.”

    I agree that in theory there is a difference. In practice, however, it’s the open source advocates who often use “options” as a measure of “openness,” which is what I was referring to.

    When an open source version of a proprietary technology is created, for example, it rarely stays static with respect to its reference: options and alternative functionalities follow in short order, which is usually the impetus behind the “openness.”

    And you’re right that creating anything really is a matter of making choices, even when affirmative choices are not exercised, which is another way of choosing. The iPhone comes with an open-source WebKit browser (choice) as does Android (choice) but without Apple’s agreement the iPhone will never get another browser option (choice) whereas theoretically/legally Android can have many different browsers (choice).

  10. flo: “this seems more like major fail on the device makers side”

    But that’s the point. Device makers are not in charge of their own destiny, if you will. Sure they can take Android and mold it along their own strategic goals. But so can anybody else using Android. IOW, the platform morphs in may different directions, favoring some device makers (or not). For any one specific manufacturer, Android serves its intended function. And yet for app developers, the entire platform becomes somewhat of a moving target.

    At the end of the day, the utility of Android for Kogan was not only to acquire an OS for free but also to derive all the benefits of the Android platform, including all the current and potential Android apps developers would create. Agora that couldn’t partake in that ecosystem would not have been attractive. But because other manufacturers were creating phones with screens and resolutions larger than Agora’s, as Android supported it, which Agora couldn’t benefit from, its strategic value was compromised.

  11. The conclusion is warranted IMO and is roughly the same as the general statement (oft-made in regards open source), that the OSS model simply doesn’t work very well for consumer oriented, stylish/personalised products. 1000 Linux engineers can get together and create an operating system, but 1000 shoe designers cannot collaborate on a pair of shoes.

    The OSS model would only work for these other types of things in the complete absence of copyright law and in a culture with an insect-like mentality.

  12. I totally agree. Android will be the desktop Linux of the cell phone world and will have the similar marketshare (low single digits).

  13. Pingback: “Agora phone exposes Android??… | Jeremy Bell

  14. Can’t say I totally agree … this seems more like major fail on the device makers side, and maybe a misscommunication between managment and engineers.
    Also, just looking at your example about screen size / resolution, afaik this basically applies to every phone that is not the iphone, and it might even apply to the iphone in the future, if there is ever gonna be an iphone nano or an iphone with a higher resolution / better graphics / whatever. (which would basically boil down to apps in the app store requiring a certain firmware variant specific to the new device I guess, cause that can be done already. I’m not saying that open is always better, or more likely to succeed, but this propietary beat open comparison seems kinda forced.

  15. quote:
    “So while the power of proprietary platforms to create large markets has been demonstrated, the ability of open source to create large and lucrative markets coherent enough to attract commercial developers in the consumer markets is yet to be proven.”

    I think like you abruptly changed the point of view. You were talking on “one vs. multiple options” and changed to “propietary vs. open.”
    “Propietary” (as in Apple) is about making a choice; but it can also be as “not choice” (Windowa DRM).
    OTOH, GNOME and KDE “made choices” (like which rendering engine they use).
    Even Google made a choice (several really) when selecting Android’s rendering engine. Maybe, they did not do enough “hardware decisions” (understandable in Google’s reign).

    So, in my point of view, “options/no options” is not exactly the same that “propietary/no propietary.”

    Another point: Microsoft choose a “propietary format” everytime it can; Apple (usually) uses (or defines) a “standard format”: a “decision” on a non-propietary option.

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