What brand of freedom would you like?

Apple's restrictions and Google's openness have more in common than you might think.

There’s been a ton of criticism, including from me, over Apple’s restrictions on the App Store. How it restricts the freedom of developers by blocking applications users definitely want to use, or yanking apps that fail to meet a changeable standard of appropriateness or legitimacy. I originally thought I would never buy an iPhone because of that policy alone, and I felt like quite a hypocrite when I decided to buy one anyway. As many people have pointed out, the iPad, if successful, will further extend Apple’s control over the code its users are able to run.

iPad CoverageOne of the main pitches for Google’s Android platform, in contrast, is that it is more open, freer, more consistent with the principles that the open source world (and this blog, and I) espouse. For the code, and applications running on it, that certainly seems to be true. I can go to source.android.com and download the Android source. The Apache license applied to most of the project is very liberal in the use of that code. As a developer, I can publish applications for Android at www.android.com/market, where, Google says, “developers have complete control over when and how they make their applications available to users.” How much more free could you get and still call it a platform? The Android stance is nearly 180 degrees from the iPhone’s. One is free and the other is closed.

And yet, I don’t think the contrast is as clear as that. Freedom means different things to different people. Hence Richard Stallman’s quip, “Think free as in free speech, not free beer.” While there’s no question the code is much more free on Android, I think Steven Levy’s point in his piece on the iPad is worth repeating:

While Apple wants to move computing to a curated environment where everything adheres to a carefully honed interface, Google believes that the operating system should be nearly invisible. Good-bye to files, client apps, and onboard storage — Chrome OS channels users directly into the cloud …

Funneling users to the cloud means storing their data for them, on Google-owned and controlled servers. And Google is at least as restrictive about the data on its servers as Apple is about the apps in its App Store — maybe, I think almost certainly, a lot more restrictive.

Google has long taken the stance that users should trust it with their data (famously enshrined in the company’s “don’t be evil” motto). And indeed, Google has taken stances I believe are favorable to users’ interests, including fending off subpoenas from the U.S. government for search data when other search companies did not, and, last week, advocating for better privacy laws (meaning, privacy of Google’s data from government demands).

Google often seem to take those admirable stances, though, when users’ privacy interests coincide with Google’s business interests. When they don’t, Google sometimes argues for its business interests above users’ privacy interests. For instance, see Google’s arguments for the benefits of log retention, which as the AOL search data case showed, can certainly be harmful to users’ interests. In these cases, the protections — that is, the freedom offered by Google — is limited to “trust us.”

I’m not just spouting off, here. At my company, we promise users what we call the “Data Bill of Rights,” which states in very plain language the control our users retain over their data. We also recently released an open source server framework that helps “cloud” applications responsibly store user data. If Google wanted to make promises to users about data that were as strong as the freedoms it offers around the Android code, it could, and it doesn’t.

I have no hard evidence that Google is untrustworthy with my data, but nor do I believe that the emailed report I got from my doctor’s office in my Gmail account was completely removed when I hit “delete.” I’ve had conversations with Google engineers that have creeped me out to no end and made me reluctant to use its services, as good as they are, and I feel like quite a hypocrite when I decide to do so anyway. Likewise, I have no hard evidence that Apple wields its control any more or less responsibly than Google does.

I disagree with calls both companies have made with their respective points of control, but in general I believe both are trying to create fantastic products in a responsible way. And the guarantee I have that that is true for either company? None. Apple can and occasionally does abuse its control over the App Store to further its business interests Google can and occasionally does abuse its control over hosted data to further its business interests.

What brand of freedom do you prefer? I find myself undecided. I don’t like either brand, since neither really seems free to me. I’m sure, though, that saying Apple is an overly restrictive platform and Google/Android is a free and clear platform is a false dichotomy.

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  • John Dowdell

    Understood… we’ve been focused on “open code”, and now “open data” is playing against “open devices”. Few absolutes; more about balances.

    One thing I like about Adobe is that their core core customer base is creative communicators, and they try to erase the walls between silos… no intermediation between a communicator and their audience.

    More in similar vein here:


  • John Bledsoe

    One is free and the other is closed.

    Sorry Marc, it is as clear as that. You’re conflating Android the platform with Google’s services which are easily separated. In fact, the AT&T/Motorola Backflip doesn’t come installed with Google. I can run/fork/develop/deploy without ever touching Google’s data services. The same cannot be said for the iPhone.

  • Paul

    I am very glad to see more than one model out there, and I think it will be interesting to see which is more successful. Both are an improvement over whatever we got before from the cell phone companies.

    My money is on Apple when it comes to commercial success, though. I don’t think the general pubic gives a fig about whether the software is open or not. It may be more important to note that the probability of getting a virus or malware on a closed Apple platform such as the iPhone has to be petty low, and that is going to be a selling point with a lot of people.

  • Marc Hedlund

    John, I’m conflating the corporate strategies of the two companies with the products they make. If you think those are separable, I disagree.

    With either platform you can choose to use or not use the things that make them restrictive. I can use an iPhone without ever opening the App Store, or I could use their (inept, but available) cloud-based storage, MobileMe. I can use an Android phone without GMail or any other Google service, as you say.

    My point, though, is that each company is seeking to control something (in Apple’s case, the complete stack from hardware to software, and in Google’s, the data), and that each of those types of control imply different problems for consumers.

  • Peter Kirn

    Right, but Google strategy is markedly different — they’re so confident that you’ll give all your data *to them*, they often don’t seem to worry much about control, after all. They assume if you’re on the Internet, you’ll give them your data.

    The big question mark for me is, what the heck will Chrome OS actually be? The whole thing is hugely nebulous, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been more concern about Google completely reinventing the wheel. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of it, but right now, whatever their corporate strategy with Chrome OS may be (and I’m not convinced they’re so sure themselves), it seems some of the traditional OSes have a more complete solution for actual users. It’s even more frustrating while you’re waiting for things to get addressed on Android to watch Google going off on Chrome OS, and Chrome browser, and set-top TV boxes… you do have to wonder at what point they spread themselves too thin.

    I hear what you’re saying, but the Google “throw everything against the wall” strategy, the “open it up and they’ll come back to us and give us their data” plan, very, very different from Apple’s — and the material stuff, we just don’t really know when it comes to Chrome.

  • Ed

    If I buy an iPhone, I can only run the software on it that Apple decides I can.
    If I buy an Android phone, I can run anything on it.

    If I use Google service, they might do bad things with my data.
    If I use an Apple service, they might do bad things with my data.

    Where’s the equivalence?

  • Brian

    It’s pretty absurd to claim you’re comparing iPhone and Android and then start comparing iPhone to some theories about what ChromeOS (which has yet to ship) will be.

    iPhone is a closed, walled garden environment. Android is an open platform and the vast majority (possibly all!) of shipping Android devices allow side-loading of apps via USB and/or web, including such things as alternative market apps.

    Regarding data trapped in the cloud concerns, check out the nice work by the Data Liberation Front, a team at Google dedicated to making sure you can easily retrieve your data and/or move it to a competing service if you’d like.

    As has been pointed out by others above, you can use Android without using Google Apps or services if you take issue with those apps or services.

  • Marc Hedlund


    Do you work at Google? Seems like that would be worth disclosing if so.

    What I was comparing was the goals of the two companies and how those goals affect consumers. I know very little about ChromeOS; my opinion was formed based on years of using a range of Google products, many of which raise the concerns I mention in the post.

    I definitely agree that the Data Liberation Front is a good project, but it speaks to export and import, not, say, deletion of log data. The example I gave above, deleting an email from GMail, would not be covered by anything the DLF is doing, as I understand it. Am I wrong? Note also that *import* benefits Google’s business goals.

    As I also said above, I feel very ambiguously about these issues. They concern me a lot and yet I use products from both companies because I think Google and Apple make far better products than their competitors. But I don’t think either company should be given a pass on consumer control of information; whether that control comes from ability to run apps or modify code, or the ability to control retention and use of personal data. All of those are legitimate causes of concern for me, and not, as you claim, absurd to raise. If you do work at Google, your dismissal of these concerns as absurd only increases my belief that they are real.

  • Daniel

    You can use ChromeOS with non-Google cloud services. They don’t even need to be chrome-aware, just online and standards-compliant.

    If a lot of people aren’t satisfied with Google’s privacy guarantees, someone will establish a competitor with stricter ones.

    If you don’t trust the cloud at all, stick to Android (or Ubuntu) and run native apps.

  • Robin

    Sorry, Marc, but I believe you’ve made a serious oversight: I can pack my bags and move my data from Google across to another provider whenever I want. Try leaving Apple’s ecosystem – good luck.

    Freedom to me is not being locked in and forced to use a provider.

  • Andrew Fielden

    I find myself agreeing to a great extent with Marc in that it seems to me that Google does the things that are good for Google and thats pretty much where it ends. This is promoted as being good for you and me whereas its more like whats good for the Internet is good for Google.

    The whole Google philosophy is based on the idea that they can filter from the Internet anything that can make money for them. In essence they are buying our data by making tools and services available as a barter. They can then charge real money to those who can make a use from it. This is a real transaction although not as transparent as the Apple one.

    The relevancy of Google code being available seems a red herring. The Google angle being that it is far better to have their code out there with the likelihood that the vast majority of it will start making more data available for them than letting everyone else go their own way and have the data unavailable.

    For me Google is just like any other business including Apple or the supermarket I buy my groceries from. I transact with them but they are most certainly not my best friend.

  • John Heim

    I think Marc is hitting on a key point here. Both Apple and Google want control over the underlying infrastructure. Each just has a different path for getting there. Win the war and the wealth and power to the victor will be staggering.

    Personally, I’m rooting for the open-source community and smaller infrastructure companies to expand choice in both apps and data storage options. But, it’s a tough road to hoe. When Apple and Google have such low-friction and increasingly complete solutions, how does open compete? Like visiting Disneyland, the “treats” that come with giving yourself over to an integrated experience can be extremely enticing. Resistance (if not resentment) may be futile – as illuminated by Marc’s use of the self-loathing term “hypocrite”. “I hate myself for doing this, and somewhere in my core I know this will not end well, but gosh darn it, it’s just too easy and too valuable not to do it”.

  • Greg

    Certainly, in theory one can use the Android OS without the Google apps. And there are industrial contexts where that makes a lot of sense and it’s great that Google is making the contribution.

    I think Marc’s point, however, is very different. It’s a question of what these two companies mean to the end user. My own experience as an enthusiast for open source software points out the difficulty that both companies create.

    I’d love to have an iPhone or Android phone. But I use a Nokia s60 phone. Why? Because I don’t want to give up keeping my personal data in my open source personal computer data store (via Gnome’s Evolution). And Nokia has the only phones that will sync (however imperfectly :-) with Linux.

    Apple controls access to the iPhone via iTunes. Without iTunes the phone is basically crippled. So no iPhone for this Linux user.

    Android will sync with Linux if you’re happy giving Google all the rest of your data (the few things they don’t already have :-) – I’m not.

    Could Android be extended to sync via multisync? Sure, but Google hasn’t made the necessary interfaces (the calendar provider I believe) available so that you can feed data into the built-in calendar. So a year after it’s introduction, Android for all practical purposes is totally wedded to the Google cloud.

    Could that change? Sure. Will it?

  • David Megginson

    Marc missed the boat, and John Bledsoe’s comment is right on target.

    Even if Google has evil world-domination plans, Android lets you thwart them simply by installing different (non-Google) apps or forking the Android code base.

    If you’re using the iPhone or iPad, you have to trust Apple; if you’re using Android, you don’t have to trust Google. That’s the whole point of open platforms and open source.

  • Daniel Serodio

    Google doesn’t “lock-in” your data, they make it easy for you to get access to your data (www.dataliberation.org).

    The problem is they allow you to “copy” your data but not “move” it (ie, delete the copy on Google’s servers), that’s where they need to improve.