We tend to think of an open source operating system as something that gives both smartphone vendors and end users more freedom to customize their experiences. But as Bronte Capital’s John Hempton points out, open source software can have a dark side as well if it is changed by authoritarian governments to limit the information that end users can access. Hempton says he bought a Samsung Desire HD off of eBay from a Middle Eastern country a couple of years ago and found that “it did not contain any access to the Google market place (Google’s equivalent of the App store),” that “it had limited apps and no possibility of adding more” and “it contained a non-standard web browser and a non-standard email client (leaving open the possibility of the State watching what I wrote and said).”
All of this was possible, Hempton notes, because governments have access to Android’s source code and can thus “demand and implement any changes” they want as a precondition of selling devices on national wireless carriers. Hempton says that it’s significantly more challenging for repressive regimes to drastically overhaul Apple’s iOS for their own purposes since Apple does not hand out its source code to anyone who asks for it. Instead, the regime must negotiate with Apple over potential country-specific modifications to iOS, which means that the government is unlikely to get everything it wants.
Of course, there is a solution to this for Android users living under more repressive governments: They can simply root their phones and install stock Android or remove their device’s more oppressive features. But Hempton worries that knowledge about rooting Android phones will be severely limited in many countries and that rooted Android phones will be used only by a tiny elite who have education in coding.
All of this brings us to the looming battle between Android and Apple for consumers in China. Hempton speculates that Apple might have to make such severe changes to its operating system to gain broad access to the Chinese market that it could actually wind up degrading its devices’ overall user experience. This will only stand to benefit Android vendors, especially among elites who will know how to root their devices to open up access to more apps and content.
“I am assuming that if Apple goes mass-market in China it will sell systems with enough ‘apologies’ to the cultural differences of China,” he writes. “Those ‘apologies’ will make a rooted Android massively superior to a botched-up Apple. The elite will want their Samsungs… Some bulls on Apple and China may be just flat wrong…”