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Give Android a Break, Will Ya?

When I write about tablet/smartphone OSs, I usually discuss iOS because I have an iPhone and iPad, or Windows 8, because I'm a Windows guy. But the nearly nonstop firestorm of Android bashing seems, to me at least, unfounded and, well, a little unwise, so let me take up Android's cause this month.

The standard "Android is evil" commentary in the past few months usually runs something like this: "Android has malware. This is intolerable. No one should use Android." So let's consider that.

Let's first ask the question, Is the idea that an OS used on phones and tablets could have malware novel, or unacceptable? After all, no one's surprised about malware on Windows, Mac, Linux, or other desktop OSs. In general, cell phones have been malware-free, but that's only because until recently there wasn't much point in writing cell phone malware. That was true for several reasons. First, it wasn't possible in general, because most cell phones didn't offer an open development platform. My Motorola Star-Tac did include some sort of Java on it if I recall correctly, but I don't recall any easy way to acquire and install software on it, and no one's going to write malware that can't spread. Second, no one's going to write malware for any kind of platform unless a lot of people are using it. The first target of mobile viruses that I'm aware of was the Symbian phone OS. This might be why there hasn't been much in the way of Windows phone malware -- there aren't enough potential victims yet to make it worthwhile, and even if someone got ahold of a non-smart cell phone, it's not clear what real benefit the miscreant could derive from it. What's made things different in the case of Android, then, is that we've finally got a smartphone/tablet OS with a large enough base and a working application model.

What interests me about this is that people are surprised by it. As I've already said, no one's outraged or amazed that Windows has malware, or that the Mac does. It should be obvious that the more your phone looks like a computer, the more malware will get written for it. My only Android device is a Kindle Fire, and I like it quite a bit, although in my opinion Amazon sort of shot itself in the foot with some of the interface -- why can't I rent a movie and cache it on my Fire so I can watch it on a plane flight? But it's a nice size, nice screen, not bad on battery life, and it's fairly easy to give it access to Android apps of all kinds. That easy access to installable new apps makes my Fire somewhat like my Windows ultrabook (another very light, long-battery-life, portable computing device), and I'd never think about installing random apps from the Internet without some knowledge of those apps' provenance, for heaven's sake. (Nor would you, right?)

Second, beyond the nice size, nice screen, and nice battery life, the Fire sports a nice price. Any chance of a small Apple tablet for 200 bucks? Not anytime soon. Or what's the chance that after Microsoft spent a zillion dollars throwing away its "Hey, they finally got it right!" Windows 7 Phone OS and building Apollo that we'll see a cheap Windows "Apollo" Phone? Not anytime soon, I'd imagine. Google annoys me about many of its products -- who on Earth thought I'd want Chrome to show thumbnails for the last half-dozen or so websites I've been to when I start that browser? -- but the company's choice to embrace open source for its small-device Android OS was, I think, a good one, and the 50-plus percent of people who bought Android phones in the latter part of 2011 agree, apparently.

It infuriates me that I can't buy and install an application on my iPhone or iPad without jailbreaking it, and it saddens me that it seems that so few share my ire. Sure, it's easy for Apple to say that they're protecting people from "objectionable" things such as nudity with their AppStore policies, but several developers of rejected apps tell me that they've had their apps rejected because they expressed anti-Apple messages, and I don't think I'm guilty of a slippery slope fallacy in positing that no good will come of any big corporation controlling speech in a channel created by its products. (Imagine a GE-manufactured TV that only received NBC in any universe besides the inside of 30 Rock.) Furthermore, if Microsoft ends up controlling which Metro apps I'm allowed to install on my Windows 8 tablet, then it'll only be because Apple got away with it. It's Android's openness that opens it to malware attacks, and if the only tablet/smartphone OS that lets users acquire and install whatever apps they want in a few years is Android, I think that many thinking users will opt for freedom over a well-regulated software police state. I've been trying really, really hard not to say this but . . . "After all, haven't we heard in the past that 'the price of freedom is eternal vigilance?'" Long live iOS, where the trains always run on time, and long live Android, where liberty's fresh air abounds!

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