My recent review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Android tablet stirred up a dreary and inevitable round of OS advocacy and such, with both Apple and Android lovers baying like wounded members of persecuted religious minorities, arguing about which OS is most worthy of our love and devotion.
For me, no love or devotion is due to an operating system or a gadget.
I’m enough of an old technology hand to know that any love we harbour for our gadgets is unrequited and generally tragic – not least because you are not destined to have a long-term love-affair with your gizmos, as they will be semi-obsolete in a year or two.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that some devices, apps and systems can work well – that is, they can make it easier to do something that was hard, or possible to do something that was impossible. That’s why we all use this stuff. But I think that how well a system works is only half the picture: the other half is how badly it fails.
Because technology fails all the time. Networked, general-purpose computing devices have so many different failure modes that they can hardly be counted. Your phone or tablet can have problems coping with something as abstract as bad Maximum Transmission Unit sizes in its network connection, or as concrete as being dropped and trodden on by your toddler.
A program that runs flawlessly one day can be derailed by another program, or an OS update, or a mysterious configuration problem – hence the old “Rename your preferences folder and restart” diagnostic procedure.
The general state of technology is to be broken; which is not so different from other complex systems, like technology’s users. You might have lost a pre-beach holiday stone thanks to diet and exercise, only to get a spot on your cheek, bad traffic on the way to the airport, a row with your spouse, and a jammed knuckle from your suitcase handle. Human beings who can soldier on and stay happy and functional in the face of adversity are said to be “resilient,” which means that they fail well.
After all, it’s no good being the world’s happiest, best-adjusted, nicest person if you fall to pieces the minute you get a paper-cut. And that goes double for interpersonal systems: any couple can be happy when everything is going right, but no marriage can survive unless both of its participants are capable of soldiering on when things are going pear-shaped.
I don’t use Android tablets and phones because I hate Apple; I most certainly don’t use them because I love Google. And I don’t prefer Android to iOS because it works better than Apple — in some aspects, it does, in some aspects it doesn’t.
I use Android because I don’t trust Google. Sure, I trust and like individual googlers, and admire many of the things the company has managed – but I don’t for one moment think that Google’s management is making its decisions in order to make me happy, fulfilled and free.
I think there are good days when Google’s management might believe that helping me attain those ends will make it more money, but if it were to believe that making me miserable would enrich its shareholders without alienating too many of its key personnel and partners, my happiness would cease to matter in the slightest.
So why use Android? Because it requires less trust in Google than using iOS requires that you trust Apple. iOS has one official store, and it’s illegal in most places to buy and install apps except through this store. If you and Apple differ about which apps you need, you have to break the law to get your iPhone or iPad to run the app that Apple rejected.
Jailbroken iOS devices have sometimes been targeted by Apple security updates that render them inoperable, and jailbreakers have a reputation for not keeping their devices up-to-date.
By contrast, Android allows you to run apps from any store you choose. Google still rejects plenty of apps submitted to its store, but if you don’t like Google’s choices, you can decide to make some of your own.
That’s failing well.
More of the internal workings of iOS are secret than their equivalent workings in the Android world. Apple’s operating system runs more DRM processes that are intended to allow code to run that treats you as an untrusted adversary and refuses to accept your commands. Not least, Apple has to run all those processes aimed at stopping you from choosing to use an app that Apple hasn’t blessed (and collected its 30% commission on).
I prefer Android because it’s relative openness means more people can and do inspect its workings to ensure it is doing what Google claims it is doing. I prefer Android because when Google decides to leave out a feature that users might want – such as tethering – the people making alternative OSes for the platform stick that feature in, and shame Google into adding it in subsequent versions.
My mobile phone can track where I go. It can record my voice and image, and the voices and images of those around me. It can leak email, voicemail, texts, and passwords. In the time since I’ve gotten a mobile phone, each passing year has meant that I rely on my phone for more things, and I don’t expect that will change.
Android and iOS will both fail their users in the years to come. Not a lot, but often enough, and dramatically enough, that it’s worth ensuring that those failures are as minimal as possible.
I’d like an official Android version without the DRM, with complete source code, and with generally greater transparency into the device and its ecosystem. I like the alternative Android OS, CyanogenMod, because it has many of those things. Functionally, a CyanogenMod Android phone and a stock Android phone work in much the same way, but CyanogenMod phones fail better.
Our relationship to technology is this: We’ve jammed ourselves into the cockpits of supersonic jets that are being constantly redesigned as they hurtle around the planet, in dangerously close proximity to everyone else’s supersonic jet. It’s good to pay attention to how fast our jets go, and how comfortable the upholstery is, but the thing we really need to keep our eyes on is what happens when they crack up, when their navigation systems go awry, and when they get a bad upgrade.
When you’re moving that fast, with that much at stake, failure is much more important than success.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010