By Stephen Schenck | November 29, 2012 8:24 PM
For as much as I love smartphones, I sure do hate a lot of specifics concerning how they’re designed, sold, and supported. A lot of that, I’m sure, harkens back to my days growing up around PCs, because when I think about just what bothers me so much about those aspects of smartphones, they’re almost all because phones don’t mirror the sort of model set by computers. I’m sure I’ve mentioned at a point or two in the past how much I hate that phone hardware isn’t upgradable, that cellular carriers don’t act as device-indifferent ISPs, or just how disposably we treat these very advanced, expensive, and capable pieces of technology. Today I want to focus on one specific way in which I wish smartphones were more like computers, and why I think a change would be to our benefit: we should be paying for smartphone operating systems separately from our phones themselves.
I realize this might be an odd topic to harp on, as I’d wager that a majority of computer users have never bought an OS independently of their computers. Instead, they’ll use whatever software the machine arrived with, install those free updates that get released, and then eventually buy a whole new machine in a few years – actually, that sounds a whole lot like what we do with smartphones now.
But that’s not the way things have to be. Without too much effort, you can replace the (presumably Microsoft) OS that came with your PC with any number of open source options, and some users will even get a hacked-together Mac OS install running on non-Apple hardware. While I think that having that freedom of choice alone makes this kind of arrangement hugely important, I’m not so naive as to think that most users have similar concerns.
Instead, the freedom to buy your own OS becomes important when it’s time to upgrade. Right now, plenty of PC owners are thinking about moving to Windows 8. For everyone that is coming from a Windows 7 (or earlier) machine, that’s going to mean shelling out for the upgrade; big updates like that don’t come free.
I can’t help but start drawing parallels to the Windows Phone 8 situation. There doesn’t seem to be any legitimate technical reason for not bringing the new OS to existing hardware (and we’re already seeing some early hacking efforts to circumvent Microsoft’s wishes), and the only official way to move to the platform is to buy a whole new phone. That sucks.
I can understand some of the reasoning behind the decision. After all, not all users are going to care about the distinction between WP7.8 and WP8, and dedicating resources towards preparing software for those older models has to look like a huge waste of money in the eyes of Microsoft and these OEMs.
And that’s exactly why I’d like to see the availability of for-purchase smartphone operating systems. Maybe Nokia doesn’t stand to make much more money from sales of the Lumia 900, but if a hundred thousand or two users were willing to cough up ten dollars for a Windows Phone 8 release, you’d better bet that Nokia would find some engineers to get cracking on it straight away.
What about Android, though? The core OS is free, and there’s a thriving development community coming out with all sorts of software for abandoned hardware. Would this even make sense over there?
Absolutely. While independent devs give such projects all they can manage, their efforts are routinely hampered when they run up against undocumented hardware. Without access to complete technical specs, or the closely-guarded source code to the needed binary drivers, full compatibility can be an untenable goal. If manufacturers aren’t willing or able to release such info, paying for software can be a decent compromise.
The feasibility of a system like this would no doubt be limited by demand, and aged, unpopular hardware would still have a hard time ahead of it, but depending on the complexity of the system at hand, even a just a few thousand interested users, willing to cough up the cash, could be enough to spur on the development of software for phones that would otherwise be long-abandoned by their makers.
In a perfect world, we’d have some sort of open driver framework so that we wouldn’t even need to pay manufacturers to compile builds of future platform releases for old hardware; instead, we’d just pay them to keep the drivers coming and make sure they stay updated to be compatible with the latest developments in smartphone platforms. Then we could use those binaries alongside a free platform like Android, or maybe even some slick, polished third-party platform an entrepreneurial development team cooks up on its own and starts selling independently.
Let’s not kid ourselves about any of this; it ain’t happening. I’ve tried to come up with financial motivations for getting manufacturers on board with this strategy, but there’s no denying that ten or twenty bucks for a new OS release is peanuts compared to the several hundred an all-new phone brings in. When they don’t want to release any more updates, we don’t sit idly by and pout – we pout for a while, grow frustrated, and then go out and get a new phone.
Maybe that was the intention all along. I’m just saying, there’s a better way we could be doing things. As for actually effecting the change I’m suggesting – well, if I knew how to do that, I wouldn’t be sitting here complaining about it.