There is a massive disconnect between what the media, lawmakers and regulators want from tech brands, and what punters want. In some ways, this disconnect defines many of the bad bits about the world in which we live today, from web security to fake news.
The difference in attitude can be simplistically summed up like this: (some) journalists and regulators can see that lax internet security and the way mega tech brands do business is causing massive danger, potential harm and actual harm.
And customers just want their damn devices to work so they can download this video clip or meme they’ve been sent.
Anyway, I thought about this again recently, when the EU slapped Google with a massive ¤4.3 billion fine for, as far as I can make out, giving away its Android OS to handset brands, but including Google Search in it.
You could go on about the rights and wrongs of this for quite a while. Possibly Google acted in a way that stifled competition at the dawn of the mobile internet age, but trying to fix that now is like trying to make the sky a bit lower.
It got me thinking about what mobile phone shops would look like now if the EU was able to go back in time and strangle Android at birth, just like in Terminator 2.
I think I may have mentioned this before, but there’s a very interesting infographic you can view relating to smartphones. It consist of about 50 basic line drawings of phones before and after the iPhone became a mainstream success (around iPhone 3G, I expect). Before: every size, shape and style you could imagine a phone to be. After: rectangular screens with a bezel around. That wasn’t just down to Apple, though. In fact, it was mainly driven by Google Android.
The People’s Operating System actually started out on a weird fold-out keyboard made by HTC, but the iPhone’s success soon pushed Android hardware towards a uniform, all-screen approach.
As a result, everyone now has that style of phone. Without Google giving away (subject to certain requirements) Android OS to hardware brands, it’s hard to see that happening. We could now be in an alternate universe where those with money have iPhones (or phones made by Google itself), and everyone else has phones made with very differing approaches, quality levels and competing OSes.
Everything from Microsoft Windows 7 to Nokia Symbian 47 could be doing battle in a chaotic marketplace with standalone operating systems from Sony, Samsung, et al. Challengers would be using mobile Linux or an OS knocked up in the shed as a hobby.
Google can pay its fine by cracking open the jar of 1000 Euro notes it keeps to pay the milkman
Would Facebook or Twitter be so huge if they’d had to build and maintain apps for multiple competing OSes? Would iOS and Android have blazed forward as they have if the competition – especially at the cheaper end of the market – had nowhere near the resources of Apple and Google?
Well, who does have their resources? Google can probably pay its ¤4.3bn fine by having a bit of a root down the back of its sofa, or cracking open the jar full of 1000 Euro notes that it keeps on the dresser for paying the milkman.
It is a shame that all those interesting-shaped phones were lost along the way. We know from online traffic that there’s a ton of interest in reading about folding phones, but that doesn’t mean anyone would buy them.
Google creating and distributing Android for (sort of) free was like the invention of the wheel. It changed the world. Some of the ways Android has changed the world are bad – you can put a wheel on an ambulance or on a tank, after all – but many are good.
Above all, they’re changes that are fundamental and irreversible. That’s why the EU fining Google for what it supposedly did at Android’s birth feels so weird. ■