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The Price Of An Open Platform: Common Sense

Android is, if you think about it, a seamless continuation of Google's (superficial) fight against the establishment. The establishment here would be Apple, which has created the perfect platform environment in which all users and developers can live in harmony:

Lots of users. Developers want to code because they can make money. Thus, apps keep improving. Users are happy.

The downside is that you have no rights other than opening your bank account. [Well, you still have the right of choice to use Android and not iOS.--Ed.]

Android cannot be more different. It's marketed as an open platform that is also open to attacks. Google just got a first taste of the vulnerability of its platform with the DroidDream Trojan, which was a wake-up call for some and a welcome incident for all those who want to sell you antivirus-software for your smartphone. Google reacted by remotely removing affected apps from user phones and was slapped a second time: This time there were analysts who now say that Google should not be allowed to use the killswitch in Android (iOS also has a killswitch).   

So, knowing that your Android device is vulnerable to attacks and that your private data is at risk, what do you do? Dump Android and buy an iPhone? What are your choices, exactly?

iOS: A modern version of 1984

Germany's prestigious Der Spiegel magazine published an interesting analysis of Steve Jobs' "dark empire" and compares Apple's way of treating its customers to past socialistic countries, in this case the German Democratic Republic. While the magazine is generally an Apple-friendly publication, the author sharply attacks Apple as an organization that is building an Orwellian society throughout its customer base and uses deception as well as modified word interpretations - Newspeak, in 1984's terms -  to enforce its "suppression" and keep its users and platform under tight control.

The article is very dramatic in some parts, but there is no denying that iOS represents an extreme form of a walled garden and there remains a reality distortion field that enables Apple's business model to flourish - albeit we have to admit that it is us who choose to live in this distortion field.   

If you use an iOS device, you agree to this environment - perhaps unknowingly, perhaps because of convenience reasons, or perhaps because it is just an Apple device. You will only see what Apple wants you to see. This can be a good thing, since you are safeguarded from malware, but it is a restriction of freedom on other levels when certain access to information is kept from people - and this model may not work in the long term. As high as the quality of content on Apple devices is, we also notice a trend of dumbing down the average user. The user is stripped of responsibility and generally considered more a risk than a positive contribution.

Android: Learn to swim

Android is the extreme opposite of iOS. Android users are basically on their own, dropped into an ocean with sharks waiting to attack from below, as we have experienced with DroidDream. Compared to iOS, you can access virtually any information you want, but you have to take responsibility on your own and accept the risk that nasty attacks may extract information from your device and cause significant damage.

In some way, this scenario is reminiscent of the very beginning of the Internet and the rise of shareware databases. While viruses were distributed initially mainly via floppy disks, the Internet and especially shareware became an uncontrollable breeding ground for malware that later expanded into music and video files. The difference to the mid to late 1990s is that the Internet was mainly populated by geeks with a substantial understanding of what viruses are, what they can do and how you can get rid of them. When the Internet went mainstream, we saw more and more security software companies that pitched  a need to educate the general user and convince us that malware protection software is essential for every PC.

A decade later, you can catch a trojan now via another download database, this time for smartphones and tablets. However, the hurdle to download software is much lower: Thanks to 4G connections, software is downloaded in just a few seconds and massive storage space allows you to install hundreds of apps on your phone. Downloading one more or one less app does not matter and there is generally no concern that malware could infect your phone. I would argue that we are generally not experienced enough to use an open platform smartphone and to deal with the threats that are lurking around corners and may get more dangerous in the future.

The solutions are somewhat obvious. Your Android phone will need anti-malware software just like your PC, which is, in my mind, a rather silly approach. A much more promising approach would be a limited lock-down of Android Market where Google ensures that the software offered for download is malware free. This model has been adapted by other large download databases in the past, including download.com and it surely can work here as well. A good portion of common sense and internetsmarts won't hurt either: Simply don't download every (free) app you find.   

 Conclusion: Apple and Google got it wrong

I personally never liked Apple's approach to tell its users what they can do and what cannot do. I do not believe that Apple will be able to sustain this model in the long term, especially if other platforms offer more freedom and if Apple's Steve Jobs continues to misquote its rivals and pushes the acceptable limits of its distortion field. As extreme as Apple is in safeguarding its platform, as extreme is Google in opening its platform. As much as Apple protects its users, Google is exposing its users to threats. A future solution may be a compromise of the two and we are seeing Google moving a bit closer to Apple. In fact, a compromise of both platforms may be an opportunity for rival platforms such as Windows Phone.