Android as a life management platform

Nearly all smartphones today are optimized to do three things for you:

  1. Run apps
  2. Speak to other people
  3. Make you dependent on a phone company

The first two are features. The third is a  bug. In time that bug will be exterminated. Meanwhile it helps to look forward to what will happen with #1 and #2 once they’re liberated from #3.

Both features are personal. That’s key. Our smartphones (or whatever we end up calling them) should be as personal as our clothing, wallets and purses. In other words, they should work as extensions of ourselves.

When this happens, they will have evolved into what Martin Kuppinger calls life management platforms, good for all these things —

— in addition to the stuff already made possible by the zillion apps already out there.

What kinds of smartphones are in the best position to evolve into Life Management Platforms? The short answer is: open ones. The longer answer is: open ones that are already evolving and have high levels of adoption.

Only one platform qualifies, and that’s Android. Here’s what Wikipedia says (as of today) about Android’s open-ended evolutionary position:

Historically, device manufacturers and mobile carriers have typically been unsupportive of third-party firmware development. Manufacturers express concern about improper functioning of devices running unofficial software and the support costs resulting from this.[81] Moreover, modified firmwares such as CyanogenMod sometimes offer features, such as tethering, for which carriers would otherwise charge a premium. As a result, technical obstacles including locked bootloaders and restricted access to root permissions are common in many devices. However, as community-developed software has grown more popular, and following a statement by the Librarian of Congress in the United States that permits the “jailbreaking” of mobile devices,[82] manufacturers and carriers have softened their position regarding third party development, with some, including HTC,[81] Motorola,[83] Samsung[84][85]and Sony Ericsson,[86] providing support and encouraging development. As a result of this, over time the need to circumventhardware restrictions to install unofficial firmware has lessened as an increasing number of devices are shipped with unlocked or unlockable bootloaders, similar to the Nexus series of phones, although usually requiring that users waive their devices’ warranties to do so.[81] However, despite manufacturer acceptance, some carriers in the US still require that phones are locked down.[87]

The unlocking and “hackability” of smartphones and tablets remains a source of tension between the community and industry, with the community arguing that unofficial development is increasingly important given the failure of industry to provide timely updates and/or continued support to their devices.[87]

But the community doesn’t just argue. It moves ahead with implementations. For example, Ubuntu for Android and custom ROMs for Google’s Nexus 7.

The reason there is an aftermarket for Nexus hardware is that Google intended for Android to be open and generative from the start, pointedly saying that Nexus is “unlocked and contract free.” This is why, even though Google does lots of business with mobile phone company operators, it is those operators’ friend only to the degree it helps lead those operators past current customer-entrapment business models and into a future thick with positive economic externalities. Amidst those externalities, phone companies will still enjoy huge built-out infrastructure and other first-mover advantages. They will wake up and smell the infinity.

While Apple deserves huge credit for modeling what a smartphone should do, and how it should work (Steve Jobs was right to see Android as something of a knock-off) the company’s walled-garden remains a monument of feudality. For a window on how that fails, read Barbara Lippert’s Samsung vs. Apple: Losing My Religion in MediaPost. Barbara is an admitted member of the “cult of Cupertino,” and is — along with droves of other Apple serfs — exiting the castle.

Samsung, however, just happens to be (deservedly) the maker of today’s most popular Androids. The Androids that win in the long run will be true life management platforms. Count on it.

For a window on that future, here are the opening paragraphs of  The Customer as a God, my essay in The Wall Street Journal last July:

It’s a Saturday morning in 2022, and you’re trying to decide what to wear to the dinner party you’re throwing that evening. All the clothes hanging in your closet are “smart”—that is, they can tell you when you last wore them, what else you wore them with, and where and when they were last cleaned. Some do this with microchips. Others have tiny printed tags that you can scan on your hand-held device.As you prepare for your guests, you discover that your espresso machine isn’t working and you need another one. So you pull the same hand-held device from your pocket, scan the little square code on the back of the machine, and tell your hand-held, by voice, that this one is broken and you need another one, to rent or buy. An “intentcast” goes out to the marketplace, revealing only what’s required to attract offers. No personal information is revealed, except to vendors with whom you already have a trusted relationship.

Within a minute offers come in, displayed on your device. You compare the offers and pick an espresso machine to rent from a reputable vendor who also can fix your old one. When the replacement arrives, the delivery service scans and picks up the broken machine and transports it to the vendor, who has agreed to your service conditions by committing not to share any of your data with other parties and not to put you on a list for promotional messages. The agreement happened automatically when your intentcast went out and your terms matched up with the vendor’s.

Your hand-held is descended from what they used to call smartphones, and it connects to the rest of the world by whatever ambient connection happens to be available. Providers of commercial Internet connections still make money but not by locking customers into “plans,” which proved, years ago, to be more trouble than they were worth.

The hand-held itself is also uncomplicated. New technologies and devices are still designed by creative inventors, and there are still trade secrets. But prototyping products and refining them now usually involves actual users at every stage, especially in new versions. Manufacturers welcome good feedback and put it to use. New technology not only evolves rapidly, but appropriately. Ease of use is now the rule, not the exception.

OK, now back to the present.

Everything that I just described can be made possible only by the full empowerment of individuals—that is, by making them both independent of controlling organizations and better able to engage with them. Work toward these goals is going on today, inside a new field called VRM, for vendor relationship management. VRM works on the demand side of the marketplace: for you, the customer, rather than for sellers and third parties on the supply side.

It helps that Android is already huge. It will help more when makers of Android devices and apps squash the phone company dependency bug. It will also help that the “little square code” mentioned above already exists. For a pioneering example, see For examples of how individuals can program logical connections between other entities in the world, see Kynetx and Iffft. (Kynetx is for developers. Ifttt is for users.)

As for investors, startups and incumbent big companies, it will help to start looking at the world from the perspective of the individual that each of us happens to be. The future is about liberating us, and equipping us with means for managing our lives and our relationships with other entities in the open marketplace. Personal independence and empowerment is what the PC, the Internet and the smartphone have all provided from the start. Trying to rein in that independence and empowerment comes naturally to big companies, and even some startups. But vector of progress to the future has always been along the line of personal freedom and empowerment. Free customers will be more valuable than captive ones. Android’s success is already starting to prove that.

14 responses to “Android as a life management platform”

  1. Perhaps, due to your association with the Berkman Center (a Google lobbying shop), you left out a fourth purpose:

    4. Spy on you, monetize you, and capture your personal data.

    Google is far more guilty of capturing, spying on, and monetizing the user than is any cellular provider. You can’t even use an Android smartphone without giving Google the ability to spy on your private contacts and harvest their private and unlisted telephone numbers!

    One of Berkman’s charters, as a captive Google lobbying shop within academia, is to attack telecommunications companies, accusing them of exploiting the customers, and thereby distract the public from Google’s greater exploitation. The fact that you push Android in the article above, instead of advocating that consumers avoid it, demonstrates that you’re complicit in this.

  2. As for your allegations of Google’s spying trough Android devices, I invite anybody from Google to come in and respond.

    As for spying and its role in turning the Web into a strip mall and worse, I’ve said plenty already.

    As for your allegations about Berkman, they’re wrong, and deserve no more response than just that.

    As for Android, it’s the best vector we have toward the future I’ve been working to make happen for most of my adult life, which began before Sergey and Larry were born. So I’m glad Android is there for the hacking, regardless of its corporate provenance.

  3. Doc; I love it. And at the same time, you are missing most of the story of mobile and platforms before Android. Is Google making a better run at doing the “information as glue and our services as points in the line, our hardware as data accelerants.”

    Dig into the stories about Nokia’s development of Hildon/Maemo. There you see its not just mobile as life management, but as something a bit more. The best picture, if I can use that word, is when Nokia talked about the Morph Concept in how data connects, enables, and transforms and the device plays a role of the magic wand (I love that term).

    I’ll tell you a story…
    Some years ago, I purchased a Nokia N97. That was probably the mobile that made the point that Nokia failed. At least to others. It worked for me quite well. I looked for nothing else except what was promised in a few concept videos. Their Beta Labs group came out with an application called Bots. It wasn’t the first, but it was the one of the first big companies to play with machine learning on a mobile device but not do so as a networked service. With Bots installed on my N97, I rarely picked up the device with it not being ready for me. It calculated my most frequently used apps, contacted persons, and even auto-magically put the phone to sleep at night and set the alarm for the morning (weekdays different than weekends). With that app/service on the N97, I essentially had a smartphone, running on one of the only 2 mobile OSes made for phones/organizers first. Nokia didn’t move fast enough, and I just don’t move. I still own and use a Nokia [Symbian] Belle device as my main device. I still use a Bots-like app. Life management, sort of. Or better termed, a smartphone that adapts and becomes something that morphs into what’s needed when I need it.

    If you aren’t invested into what Google is doing with Google Now, Android, and web-as-a-service… then yes, open platforms do indeed have a place. What Nokia looked to be doing with Maemo/Ovi seemed to be an extension of my story above. The N9 plays quite well on that. I don’t know that Jolla or Ubuntu will be far away from that vision – but the culture of such (mobile a life management tool) isn’t the way that developed nations see mobile. Mobile is one of many screens, one of many filters to the streams of data. Microsoft has the right idea (weird execution though).

    I’d like to see all of us who posture ourselves as power-users in mobile to take on an open platform and indeed change the language of mobile. But, I fear that we are power-users in terms only… to use a mobile for everything and then build computing and life upward from there requires a bit more. Usually, accepting of something not as polished so that control can be the main ingredient.

  4. Thanks, Antoine. You hit many nails on their heads.

    As an editor for Linux Journal, I covered Maemo, Qt (and Trolltech before Nokia bought them), Symbian and other open source efforts within and around Nokia. I have in various drawers versions of Nokia smartphones and the N700 and N800. I also consulted the Symbian Foundation while it was still an earnest effort, and it still looked like Symbian stood some chance of success against the onslaughts of iOS and Android.

    But alas, Nokia hired Elop and blew up most or all of those good efforts by re-basing the whole company on a doomed Windows strategy.

    To be clear, I’m not much interested in what Google is doing here beyond keeping Android open, and positioned as open (through projects like Nexus). It helps enormously that Android is popular already and open enough for outfits like Canonical (Ubuntu) to run with. It’s also inviting to hackers who want to make truly independent and personal devices work as life management platforms (or whatever else we want to call them).

  5. Understandable.

    Google and an Open Android
    Don’t know if that can continue as it was, but will get some of that (near) direction seen with Symbian and other platforms. Even Google’s latest of making the Android SDK no longer a freebie points to more a controlling of something, not actually open, but more like flexible.

    Hackers and Outfits
    I admire all of the efforts, but they aren’t answering the question (to consumers, and even somewhat not to carriers) about what they solve that makes sense enough to be disruptive. Just making a platform that fits on cheap hardware isn’t enough, there has to be some knitting of context and behavior to options beyond the mobile/wearable/utility dial… if the consumer/prosumer segment is the target. If the target is to enable a wide open market of sellers and opportunities, then open access has a tougher nut to crack, the one you’ve seen with Linux and Maemo, how to have a compelling enough UX that makes disruption good for all. Something like what Firefox did on the side of the browser wars despite Opera and others being present. Be a vector that hacks at the behavior and the context, not just another food color choice in the cabinet.

  6. Doc, I’ve verified on multiple occasions that Google spies through Android devices. They even come with a utility that “backs up” (i.e. dumps the full contents of) the device to Google’s servers by default.

    You are advocating that users allow Google to know every intimate detail of, spy on, and manage users’ lives. And you claim to be a consumer advocate? Hah. You’re a shill for Google.

  7. Antoine, good points again, especially about the Android SDK. (More fodder here.)

    I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying about Hackers and Outfits, but maybe this will help: we need inventions that mother necessity here. That’s why I pointed to what Kynetx and Ifttt are doing: putting in front of individuals ways of programming their worlds. Once an individual is not merely a “user” or a “consumer,” but an independent operator with full agency, a world of possibilities opens up. But we need demo proof of what can happen, and it’s not here yet.

    And Brett, I know that Google spies. That’s how it gets data it uses to provide various services. I’d much rather see all of that spying as opt-in rather than opt-out (and I don’t even know to what extent that’s possible). And I’d like to see more transparency in (and obviousness to) what Google actually does with personal data. While it may not be possible to distance this conversation from the one about spying, that’s what I’m trying to do here. This post calls for leverage of the Android platform in new directions, because it’s already popular and lots can be done there because it’s (at least relatively) open. FWIW, I never claimed to be a “consumer advocate.” By now you should know I avoid the term “consumer” when better terms will do; and I’d rather act than merely advocate. Finally, I regard calling people names (e.g. “shill”) as a personal attack — essentially trolling — and I won’t tolerate any more of it.

  8. Hey Doc – as a ‘droid-head, I couldn’t agree more. Lamenting the absence of a really good Android tablet, I finally caved and bought an iPad about 6 months ago.

    I can acknowledge the better UX and (still) better universe of apps, but that isn’t enough to compensate for Apple’s near-totalitarian approach to the ecosystem. I refuse to iCloud or iMe or whatever other “service” it is they want me to connect to. I have never synced the device to a computer, and don’t even have iTunes installed on any of my machines.

    BTW, in the vein of a souped-up ifttt, check out Microsoft’s on{x}. It’s an Android-only solution that their Israeli R&D team built that takes recipes, tasks, and life automation a step further than what the average Joe can do with ifttt. My only MAJOR beef with it is that MSFT is requiring a Facebook account for signup, which annoys the hell out of me.

  9. Thanks, Fatemeh — especially for the lead to on{x} (“Onyx?”). Need to sleep now, but will dig into it in the morning.

  10. Hello again Doc (enjoying the conversation); you said,

    “…I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying about Hackers and Outfits, but maybe this will help: we need inventions that mother necessity here. That’s why I pointed to what Kynetx and Ifttt are doing: putting in front of individuals ways of programming their worlds. Once an individual is not merely a “user” or a “consumer,” but an independent operator with full agency, a world of possibilities opens up. But we need demo proof of what can happen, and it’s not here yet…”

    I totally agree. IFTTT/Kynetx/(and to some degree) On{x} are seeming to get to that point. When people can see that they can program their words, and that programming isn’t (always) so complicated to do/understand, then yes they will go with it.

    For that demo proof, I thought that Bots was perfect for this as it was simple enough to not scare folks, but there was no programming involved. That next step would be allowing some machine learning to provoke people to program their world – I am assuming that’s what Google Now is proposing that folks do (that does seem to be how the recommendation engine for Amazon works). Besides data collection and more behavior bending, I don’t know that Google or anyone else really has an incentive to grow computing usage like that – though I would say that doing so would be so beneficial for everyone.

  11. Regarding Elop “re-basing the whole [Nokia] company on a doomed Windows strategy”, maybe yes, maybe no:

    And it’s my respectful opinion that you’re too optimistic about Google’s intentions regarding data mining/spying in service to their all-important advertising business, just as Brett appears to be much too sanguine about telcos and cablecos crippling commercial innovation in their short-sighted drive to extract monopoly rents for their networks.

  12. Thanks, Paul, especially for that Gizmodo link. (Wish I were at CES this year, but alas…)

    As for Google’s intentions, I like to think that the ball-of-worms that is advertising tech can be partitioned away from the conversation about Android possibilities. But, maybe not, as Antoine also suggests.

  13. […] Those looking for a more scholarly version of this dialogue should look to Doc Searls’ recent Life Management piece for sustenance. But those who enjoy the emergent presence of a shared perspective might find […]

  14. […] Those looking for a more scholarly version of this dialogue should look to Doc Searls’ recent Life Management piece for sustenance. But those who enjoy the emergent presence of a shared perspective might find […]

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