Agora phone exposes Android’s Achilles Heel
Mon, Jan 19, 09
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.
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.