The Dell Aero: The ultimate example of Android's flaws

Dell's new Aero shows yet again that the fragmented Android platform is broken and the carriers still rule idiotically

Oooooh, there's a new Android on the market, this time from Dell. I'm so excited I could, well, fall asleep. And that's not because the Aero barks like a dog -- which it does, according to our colleagues at PC World -- but because it's yet another Android, the increasingly ragged platform that is nonetheless garnering big sales as users become increasingly fed up with AT&T.

Too many Android versions and forks

Here's a key to understanding what's wrong with the Dell Aero and with the platform: The Aero runs on Android 1.5, an operating system that is 16 months old and four versions behind the current Android OS.

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The carriers and device makers are showing themselves to be real bozos by selling different devices with different Android versions and with manufacturer- and carrier-specific UIs. For example, Dell has said it so highly customized the Android UI that it's unclear when or if it can let users update to the current Android 2.2 version. That's the kind of forking lunacy that so often undermines open source efforts.

Would you plunk down your cash for an iPhone running iOS 3.0 or, for that matter, a PC running Windows 98? How about a Dell-only version of Windows specific to a certain PC model? Of course not. But the open Google mobile platform lets anyone ship a phone with whatever version of Android suits it.

The end result is that the typical user has no idea what he or she is actually buying. That's tough enough for the consumer, but it's even harder for IT departments that are considering whether to support Android smartphones when there's so much uncertainty over the configuration of different Android models, even those bought from the same carrier.

Carriers still rule, poorly
The Aero has another lesson to teach: Despite Google's stated intention to build a platform that liberated handsets from the tyranny of carrier domination, it hasn't happened -- not even close.

Remember all the hype about the Nexus One? It was a real in-your-face to Apple and its bumbling carrier partner AT&T. Pay $500 to Google and you have an unlocked phone. No more bowing down to the carriers. Hurray!

That turned out to be nonsense, of course. As I pointed out soon after the launch, anyone who bought the device was, for all practical purposes, chained to T-Mobile. Maybe that fact contributed to the death of the Nexus One after just seven months, though its legacy lives on. The carriers still have a stranglehold on the Android platform, and there's no immediate prospect for change.

Indeed, Google is strengthening the hand of the carriers by dumping its support for Net neutrality and endorsing Verizon Wireless's position that wireless carriers should be free to do pretty much whatever they want. And as Dan Gillmor over at Salon points out, "The emboldened carriers have started loading all kinds of crapware -- apps from partner companies that can't be removed in standard configurations and that can slow down the devices."

Wow. Doesn't that remind us of a giant software company that often does evil? Much as the PC has been the prisoner of Microsoft, the smartphone is the prisoner of a handful of carriers.

Google's misguided open source platform
What about the Open Handset Alliance, founded as a way to give "consumers a far better user experience than much of what is available on today's mobile platforms"? As far as I can tell, it doesn't really exist, or if it does, it's merely Google in disguise.

Carriers can do whatever they want with Androids, and as Jason Hiner of TechRepublic notes, "Members such as HTC have gone off and added lots of their own software and customizations to their Android devices without contributing any code back to the alliance."

How can there be an open platform if everybody keeps their contributions to themselves? As it stands, the Open Handset Alliance doesn't mean much, and the platform is neither controlled à la iOS, or open à la Linux. What a mess.

Apple has certainly made its share of strategic mistakes, particularly its decision to grant AT&T exclusive rights to the iPhone in the United States. But it has kept control of the platform. Given AT&T's inability to deliver a good user experience, just imagine how much worse the iPhone would be if Ma Bell could fill it with whatever junky apps and off-the-wall features some marketing exec figures would make money.

I'm glad the Aero is here: It's a good lesson in what's wrong with Android and much of the wireless industry. It also shows how Google's open source approach combines the worst aspects of creative difference with the worst aspects of community development -- the opposite intent of the open source movement.

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