Finally, and just as critically for the future success of the platform, it’s worth noting that it’s not just the users who are waxing enthusiastic about the Android phones: developers are starting to code for it in big numbers too. Figures from Androlib.com show a healthy upward-trending graph for the number of apps in the Android market. Just how good those apps are (many are feeble), and whether the current figure of 20,000 is completely accurate (Google says it isn’t) is largely beside the point: what’s important is that the number has doubled in just a few months, which indicates a growing interesting in the platform.
And that’s where the problems start. As far as I can tell, the majority of these apps are closed source – it’s not something that is flagged up much, but, symptomatically, the Google Android Developer Challenge doesn’t require entries to be open source. Which suggests that we are seeing the rise of something that should concern everyone in the free software world: a popular system built on top of Linux, but running closed-source apps.
It already looks increasingly likely that the world of smartphones will be dominated by two platforms: the iPhone and Android. If, as some believe, Google does come out with its own branded mobile, this will give an even greater impetus to Android’s uptake. But while the vast majority of the its apps are closed source they will not help spread real user freedom, or offer much of an alternative to Apple’s tightly-controlled approach.
Worse, if efforts to enable Android apps to run on distros like Ubuntu succeed, then we may see closed-source software being used on the free software stack there, too. Ironically, Android’s success could harm not just open source’s chances in the world of mobile phones, but even on the desktop.
The free software community needs to address these problems by encouraging many more developers to build great Android apps that are truly free. In fact, we have an excellent example of how to do that with the rich ecosystem of Firefox add-ons that are free software. Moreover, this should be an attractive challenge to ambitious coders given the exciting possibilities that mobile offers for new kinds of programs (and not just those based on trendy areas like augmented reality). Maybe the time has come to shift the emphasis away from trying in vain to conquer the legacy desktop, towards excelling on mobile, likely to be the main computing platform for most of humanity.