Investigating Openness of an "Open" Mobile Operating System ...
The European InterUniversity
Association on Society, Science and Technology
The ESST MA
University of East London
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
MA Innovation Studies
Investigating Openness of an “Open” Mobile
the Case of Android
University of East London / Maastricht University
September 10th, 2009
Word Count: 19, 906
This thesis investigates some aspects of the development of Android, an open source platform for
mobile devices. It looks at Android as a technological innovation in three different places: on the
official website of the platform, in shops where Androidbased devices are sold, and in online
communities of Android users. The goal is to trace different notions of openness of the platform,
and to see how these notions change between the three places. In addition, special attention is given
to the role of users in coconstructing the platform. Thus, the empirical research done for this thesis
is threefold: a rhetorical analysis of the official Android website, participant observation in mobile
operators' shops, and virtual ethnography of online Android communities. The main conclusions of
this work are, first, that the meanings and interpretations of the Android platform and of its
openness change between different contexts, second, that the openness of the platform is relational,
and third, that Android users are largely heterogeneous and play an important role in co
constructing the Android platform, which the platform's designers and the mobile operators do not
seem to fully acknowledge.
September 10th, 2009
The ESST M.A.
Specialization: Technological Culture
1st semester university: University of East London
2nd semester university: Maastricht University
Supervisor: Dr. Anique Hommels, Maastricht University
I would like to greatly thank my supervisor, Dr Anique Hommels, for insightful and critical
comments during her supervision of this thesis. Her help has been invaluable.
Table of contents
1.1 Introducing Android as a topic for an STS thesis.......................................................................5
1.2 The openness of Android...........................................................................................................8
1.3 Research questions.....................................................................................................................9
1.4 Methods and thesis structure....................................................................................................10
2. Android created by Google – rhetorical analysis of Android.com.................................................13
2.2 De Wilde's Critical Method.....................................................................................................13
2.3 Step 1 – Rhetorical analysis.....................................................................................................14
2.4 Step 2 – Normative choices......................................................................................................18
2.5 Step 3 – Incongruities and paradoxes.......................................................................................21
2.6 Step 4 – Practices.....................................................................................................................24
3. Android delivered by mobile operators..........................................................................................29
3.2 Method – carrying out shop inquiries......................................................................................30
3.3 The Android platform within a heterogeneous network...........................................................31
3.4 Android devices in shops – Android exceptional?...................................................................33
3.5 Android under contracts...........................................................................................................35
3.6 Android described by shop assistants......................................................................................36
3.7 Android within the hierarchy of phones..................................................................................39
3.8 Conclusions – openness of Android in TMobile and Vodafone shops...................................41
4. Android constructed in online communities.................................................................................45
4.2 Doing a virtual ethnography of Android communities............................................................45
4.3 Relevant social groups of users on Androidforums.com / Phandroid.com..............................50
4.4 Conclusions and some further observations............................................................................59
5. Conclusions – The changing openness of Android........................................................................62
Appendix A – “What is Andriod?” Screenshot of Android.com, the official Android website........66
Appendix B – List of shop inquiries...................................................................................................67
Appendix C – Structure of Androidforums.com................................................................................68
1.1 Introducing Android as a topic for an STS thesis
Mobile phones play an increasingly important role in our lives. Whereas a few years ago, a mobile
phone was used almost exclusively for making calls, today it is perhaps one of the most versatile and
most used technological artefacts of daily use. It has been a while now since mobile phones started
waking us up and freed our wrists from watches. It has also been a while since they made us forget
all about punctuation, made our thumbs stronger and quicker, and taught us to articulate anything in
less than some one hundred and sixty characters. Compared to those times, mobile phones are
trying to spoil us these days – they let us use all the punctuation we could ever want; they remind us
about when to see our dentist; they do not wake us up with an annoying sound of an alarm clock,
but they let us drift off again with the pleasant hum heard from a seashell. They bring all the world's
news onto their little screen. They let students record lectures while watching YouTube videos and
chatting with friends. They let us take pictures of foolish things and post them straight away on the
Internet. They tell us where to go, where not to go, what to buy, and what not to buy. They even tell
us that there are stars in the sky, and they can tell us their names. That is, if we let them to do so. In
any case, the number of ways in which we interact with our mobile devices is ever increasing. Using
mobile phones has certainly changed how people do a number of things, from making appointments
to shopping. Therefore, mobile phones are an important subject for scientific research.
This thesis is an STS (Science and Technology Studies) case study of an innovation in
mobile phones. It investigates some aspects of the development of Android, an open source software
platform for mobile devices pursued by Google, Inc. and the Open Handset Alliance. Android
comprises of an operating system, middleware1, and some key applications necessary to run a
1 Middleware is a piece of software which functions as an intermediary between operating system and applications.
The Java Virtual Machine is a typical example of middleware which is often found in personal computers.
mobile device (Android.com). Furthermore, it provides application programming interfaces (APIs)2
and a software development kit (SDK)3 for application developers to be able to create new
applications for Android. In practice, Android aims to be used in a number of different kinds of
devices, but the most straightforward use is in those which are commonly referred to as
“smartphones”. These are advanced mobile phones with some computerlike capabilities. A typical
smartphone has a relatively large colour screen, sometimes a qwerty keyboard, and an internal
architecture similar to that of a personal computer. In terms of software, it has a computerlike
operating system, on top of which there are applications such as a personal organizer, a web
browser, or an email client. In addition, a smartphone often has hardware and software capabilities
to play music and take pictures or record videos with a builtin camera.
The following table (Table 1) shows an overview of Android development. It shows that it
took about one year from the first announcement of Android to the first Android device. It also
shows that during this year, Android was not being developed as open source. It was made open
source only later: the Android Open Source Project made Android publicly accessible at around the
same time when the first Android device went on sale.
November 5th, 2007 Android announced by the Open Handset Alliance
November 12th, 2007 Early look SDK released
April 17th, 2008 Android developer challenge I
August 28th, 2008 Android Market announced
September 23rd, 2008 Android SDK 1.0 available to developers
October 21st, 2008 Android Open Source Project launched
October 22nd, 2008 TMobile G1 goes on sale in the USA and the UK (other European countries followed)
end of April 2009 Android SDK 1.5 (“Cupcake”) released
April – May 2009 HTC Magic goes on sale through Vodafone (UK and later in Spain)
May 2009 Android developer challenge II announced (users are included this time!)
June 25th, 2009 Android NDK 1.5 released
August 2009 Samsung Galaxy available in O2 in Germany and in the UK
August 31st 2009 Android developer challenge II deadline
Table 1: A history of the Android platform (Android.com, Android Developers Blog)
2 APIs are predefined ways in which an application program may access operating system or other services (cf.
“Application Progam Interface” on Free OnLine Dictionary of Computing (FOLDOC.org 2009).
3 SDK is a set of software tools for creating new applications. In case of Android, the SDK is provided for Windows,
Mac OS X, and Linux operating systems.
Currently, there are three Android devices on the market. The first commercially available
Android device was the HTC Dream, which is sold by TMobile under the name “TMobile G1”. It
went on sale in September 2008 in the United States and in the United Kingdom, followed by some
other European countries. The second device was the HTC Magic, which went on sale by Vodafone
in April 2009 in the UK and in May 2009 in Spain. As of August 2009, there is another device, the
Samsung Galaxy, which is being sold by O2 in Germany and the United Kingdom. Thus, at the time
of our practical investigations, which took place during May and June 2009, the TMobile G1 had
been on sale for at least a few months, the HTC Magic had recently gone on sale, while the
Samsung Galaxy had not been available yet.
It is important to note, however, that Android is not the only mobile platform in the market –
there is Symbian, Apple iPhone OS, and Microsoft Windows Mobile, for instance. Why study
Android, then? There are several reasons why studying Android from an STS perspective seems to
be especially worthwhile. First, Android is a relatively new project. As of summer 2009, it is still
very much a “technology in the making”. Second, Android is an open source project on the one
hand, but on the other hand it is backed and pursued by a very powerful company, Google.
Moreover, its success depends on the cooperation of Google developers with the open source
community as well as with device manufacturers, mobile operators, and users. The groups that are
involved with Android are very diverse, and therefore the outcome of this development is very
unclear. Third, there are a lot of claims around Android, many of which are associated with the
“openness” of Android. Android claims to be open in a number of ways, and there are promises and
expectations associated with this openness. However, there may be some inconsistencies within
these claims, and it is important to critically address them. Moreover, it seems that to capture the
complexities of this technological development, a single discipline may not be enough. That is why
Android is a good subject for an interdisciplinary STS study.
1.2 The openness of Android
Android is an open source project. This means that rather than being developed behind the firewalls
of a single company, the source code of the software is publicly available and anyone is welcome to
see what is inside, and to contribute their own bug fixes or new features. However, “open source”
does not end with this rather technical description. Various studies show that open source relates not
only to a method of making software; it also relates to collaboration practices in a wider sense
(Ghosh, 2005), to the understanding of intellectual property ownership (Lessig, 2006), to business
models (Feller, 2005; Goldmann and Gabriel, 2005), and to modernity, culture, and freedom
(Lessig, 2004; O'Reilly, 2005; Stallman, 2002).
Therefore, when Android claims to be open, this claim relates not only to the software
development model. It also relates to the platform's openness towards new applications, new devices
and new uses. By saying that it is open, Android implies that it is suitable and desirable for a wide
variety of uses. This is a strong claim made by the proponents of the platform, and it extends well
beyond the technical. It implies promises on the part of the technology (for instance that it is of a
better quality than a “closed” technology), as well as expectations on the part of the users (for
instance that it will be more easily accessible). However, similarly to claims and promises of
“smart” technologies (addressed for instance by De Wilde, 2000), these promises and expectations
are not something intrinsic to the technology. They are a part of a wider discourse around the
technology. As such they are contested, and they may contain tensions and inconsistencies (cf. Van
Lente, 1993, 2000). Therefore, they call for a critical assessment to show their rhetorical structure as
well as the intentions and effects behind them. Due to their sociotechnical nature, the STS
perspective is a good starting point to carry out this critical assessment. Thus, the main aim of this
thesis is to provide a critical and reflexive account of the claims made about new technologies, and
Android in particular.
1.3 Research questions
The main aim articulated above is still a rather broad area of interest which needs to be narrowed
down to a suitable thesis research topic. Most STS researchers as well as authors of books on
methodology agree that the researcher needs to draw a line between what will be included in the
research, and what will need to be left out (cf. Booth et al., 2008; Van Lente, 1993, pp. 810; Hine
2000). This choice necessarily has consequences for the particular research, for instance about the
claims on objectivity and neutrality that the research may want to make. At the same time, as Hine
(2000) argues, giving an account “based on ideas of strategic relevance” (2000, p. 65) may be much
more worthwhile than trying to give one based on “faithful representations of objective realities.”
The short description of Android given in the previous section suggested that there is a large
number of different groups involved in Android development. This thesis will focus primarily on
three of them: first, on those who create and promote Android as a mobile platform, that is Google,
Inc. and the Open Handset Alliance. These shall be called the “designers”. Second, on those who
sell Androidbased devices together with services, and who advertise them. These shall be called
“mobile operators”. And third, those who buy Android devices and who use them. These shall be
called “users”. Each of these three groups participates in the development of Android in their own
specific way, and they may articulate different meanings around the platform. Therefore, seeing
Android from the three different perspectives may reveal the rhetorical structure of claims around
the platform as well as their contested nature. Thus, having sketched the line of what to include in
the research and what to leave out, as well as having said that the openness of the Android platform
is subject to interpretation and construction rather than an intrinsic quality of the technology, the
main research question of this thesis is:
• How is the openness of Android constructed by its designers, operators and users?
This main research question splits into several subquestions:
• Which meanings, promises and expectations do designers, operators and users attach to
• How do they interpret its openness?
• Are there any tensions or inconsistencies within or between these interpretations?
• If so, what can be the implications of the different interpretations for the future (success) of
1.4 Methods and thesis structure
The research questions indicate that this thesis will investigate Android in three different contexts.
The goal is to follow various social groups involved in Android development and to see how their
interpretations and meanings around Android, and especially those of openness, change between the
three contexts. This goal has several theoretical and methodological implications. First, it assumes
that meanings of a technology are constructed and contested, and it makes them the subject of the
investigation. Next, it focuses on various social groups involved with Android. Therefore, this
research draws on constructivist traditions within STS, most particularly Social Construction of
Technology (SCOT) (Pinch and Bijker, 1987; Bijker, 1993; Bijker, 1995).
Studying Android in three different contexts calls for three different methods: first, a
rhetorical analysis of the official Android website will be carried out. This step will focus on the
designers of the platform and their claims about the platform. The analysis will closely follow a
critical method articulated by Dutch philosopher Rein de Wilde (2000) to scrutinize the rhetorical
structure of the designers' discourse, with particular attention to normative choices, paradoxes and
tensions within the discourse.
Second, shop inquiries will be carried out to see how Android is presented in shops of
mobile operators. This step will focus on the environment in which Android devices find themselves
in the shops of mobile operators. It will pay attention to how mobile operators describe Android
devices, what they do to make them more attractive to customers, and what they do to make
Android devices fit with their business and marketing strategies. Despite social constructivism
being the overarching theoretical standpoint, this part will do a little theoretical swerve from SCOT.
It will borrow two notions from semiotic approaches to studying technology development, namely
the notion of “heterogeneous networks” (Law, 1987; Akrich, 1992) and “user configuration”
(Woolgar, 1991; Mackay et al., 2000) to better capture how Android becomes entrenched in a very
specific environment, and how this environment works together to construct a specific kind of
Third, virtual ethnography (Hine, 2000) will be employed to investigate relevant social
groups (Pinch and Bijker, 1987) of users in online communities around Android. Again, the focus is
on the meanings and interpretations of Android, but this time, users are given special attention:
different groups of users will be identified in a SCOTlike manner and their own meanings and
interpretations of Android will be analysed.
The following table shows a summary of the methods employed, indicating the main foci of
Theoretical standpoints Method Focus
Chapter 2 – Rhetorical analysis Sociology of promises and
Rhetorical structure of the designers'
of Android.com expectations (Van Lente 1993, Rhetorical analysis
discourse and its implications
2000, Borup et al. 2006)
Chapter 3 – Shop inquiries Semiotic approaches
Entrenchment of Android devices in a
(Law 1987, Akrich 1992, Woolgar Participant observation
1991, Mackay et al. 2000)
Chapter 4 – Virtual ethnography Social Construction of Technology
Relevant social groups of Android
of online communities (SCOT) (Pinch and Bijker 1987, Virtual ethnography
Bijker 1993, Bijker 1995)
Table 2: The three methods used in this thesis with focus in each step.
The table also shows that each of the steps will occupy a separate chapter: Chapter Two will carry
out the rhetorical analysis of the official Android website. Chapter Three will present the outcomes
of the shop inquiries, and Chapter Four will present the findings of the virtual ethnography of
Android communities. The three chapters will be followed by a concluding chapter, which will
summarize the findings of this work. In addition, it will try to point to implications of the findings,
and suggest further research in this area.
2. Android created by Google – rhetorical analysis of Android.com
This chapter represents the first of the three different parts of research carried out in this thesis. The
purpose of this part is to analyse the way in which Android is presented on its official website,
Android.com. More specifically, I will employ the critical method proposed in De Wilde's De
Voorspellers (2000), to see what kinds of “openness” are presented in the discourse on
Android.com. Furthermore, I will look for normative choices, paradoxes and tensions within this
discourse. In this chapter I argue that the discourse on Android.com is strongly futureoriented, and
that there are normative assumptions and paradoxes within the text. Furthermore, there are
incongruities between the discourse presented on the website and actual practices around the
2.2 De Wilde's Critical Method
In De Voorspellers (English translation is The Forecasters), Dutch philosopher Rein De
Wilde proposes a critical method to address future visions presented by the “futures industry” (De
Wilde, 2000, pp. 2041). De Wilde observes that the future has recently become central to our
society's thinking, and, perhaps as a result, there is what seems to be almost “a separate branch of
business, the 'futures industry,' a venture that supplies us with what we increasingly ask for:
projections, predictions, trend reports, concrete scenarios, as well as holistic visions of the future”
(p. 3). De Wilde points out that although the predictions of the futures industry may have little
scientific value, they “may have great political ramifications” (p. 5). Therefore, he argues, it is
important for social scientists and philosophers of science to critically assess the discourse of the
futures industry. To this end, De Wilde proposes a critical method, whose purpose is to avoid
unstructured debates about and critiques of the futures industry. The method consists in asking a set
of questions, which De Wilde believes will help one understand the meanings and implications of
future visions (p. 20). This set of questions is split into four steps of the critical method – rhetorical
analysis, explaining norms and assumptions, identifying paradoxes, and analysing social practices.
The method seems to be very suitable also for the purposes of this chapter. Preliminary
observations suggest that the discourse on Android.com is strongly futureoriented, and it closely
resembles future visions analysed by De Wilde. In addition, the present aim is to analyse tensions
and inconsistencies within and between the discourses around the Android platform. De Wilde's
method also seeks tensions and inconsistencies, and therefore it is suitable to ask De Wilde's
questions when studying Android.
Before employing De Wilde's critical method, it should be noted that De Wilde is not the
only one who came up with this kind of critical approach. Harro van Lente (2000) uses a very
similar approach to analyse the “forceful” nature of technological futures (Van Lente, 2000).
Similarly to De Wilde, Van Lente also starts with a rhetorical analysis of central concepts, then
moves to normative choices, and to “the implications for the dynamics of concrete technological
developments” (Van Lente, 2000, p. 60). When compared side by side, the two methods are very
similar. The main difference seems to be that Van Lente perhaps used it merely for his particular
research task, while De Wilde formulated it explicitly as a method to be further used by others. For
this reason, this thesis will follow De Wilde's articulation of the method.
2.3 Step 1 – Rhetorical analysis
“Begin with a rhetorical analysis of the central concepts and arguments that
speakers use to support what they consider a likely or desirable future.” (De Wilde,
2000, p. 21)
The first step of De Wilde's critical method deals largely with identifying ideographs which
speakers use in their predictions about the future. The concept of ideograph was introduced by
linguist McGee to refer to “an ordinary language term … a high order abstraction, representing
collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and illdefined normative goal” (McGee, 1980,
in Van Lente, 2000, p. 45). McGee's definition suggests several important characteristics of
ideographs: firstly, they are ordinary language terms, which means that they are familiar to wide
public and that a majority of people associate them with some meaning. Secondly, they represent a
collective commitment, which means that they bind people to do something or to act in a certain
way. Thirdly, they are normative, but their normative goal is not clearly defined, and therefore the
interpretation of this goal may change. A typical example of an ideograph is “freedom” – on the one
hand, everyone understands the term, but on the other hand, the interpretation of what it really
means varies. At the same time, freedom is often normative and represents a collective
commitment: for instance, we are told that we have to preserve and defend our freedoms. In the field
of technology studies, Van Lente showed how the notion of “technical progress” works as an
ideograph (Van Lente, 2000, pp. 4649). Similarly, De Wilde shows that “smartness” may also act
as an ideograph in the words of those who speak about bright technological futures (De Wilde,
2000, pp. 2123).
Ideographs are important because they are rhetorically very powerful and they can do a
number of different things. Not only is each ideograph normative and carries a collective obligation,
but it can also easily connect to other ideographs – for instance, De Wilde shows how “smartness”
can often link to other ideographs such as safety, progress, or speed (2000, p. 22). In sum, the
rhetorical power of ideographs is in that they imply a commitment (Van Lente, 2000, p. 45), they
can mobilise support (Ibid.), and they can link ideals with products (De Wilde, 2000, p. 22).
Thus, the present goal is to find one or more ideographs which appear on Android.com and
to see what other notions, values or connotations these ideographs link Android with. One page of
the Android.com website will serve as a starting point. The page is called “What is Android?” and it
gives an overview of the main characteristics of the platform. The page is reproduced in Appendix
A. There are four short paragraphs on the page, whose headings are: “Open”, “All applications are
equal”, “Breaking down application boundaries,” and “Fast & easy application development.” Each
of these four headings is an ideograph: “openness”, “equality”, “breaking down boundaries”, and
“easy work with fast results” are all concepts which are vague, are widely used and have positive
connotations. Not only Android, but for instance also some politicians tell us that they are working
towards society which is open, equal, with little barriers and with easy and comfortable life.
This thesis concerns the openness of the Android platform. Therefore, I will primarily
investigate the ideograph of “openness”. The other ideographs present will be mentioned only in
relation to that of openness. The goal is to see what the ideograph of openness connects Android to,
what other ideographs are called, and what connotations are brought up. In other words, the goal is
to see what kind of Android is being constructed on the website, and what meanings, values and
preferences are associated with the platform.
2.3.1 Openness on Android.com
Openness is used on the “What is Android?” page a number of times, and in a number of different
ways. Firstly, the website says that Android was developed by the Open Handset Alliance. The word
“open” in this name plays an ambiguous role – it is not clear whether it refers to the handset, to the
alliance, or to both. In any case, it brings positive connotations to both the organization behind
Android and its product. An “open” organization sounds better than a “closed” one – for instance,
open may refer to transparency, so that the public can see what is happening within the organization.
In terms of free and open source software, open may refer to the fact that the organization works
with the public for their mutual benefit (cf. Ghosh, 2005; Goldman and Gabriel, 2005; Sowe et al.,
2008). Therefore, identifying the organization as open brings positive connotations about it.
“Open” in Open Handset Alliance also suggests that the handset may be open. Indeed, the
alliance states its goal as “to accelerate innovation in mobile and offer consumers a richer, less
expensive, and better mobile experience” by creating an open and free mobile platform
(OpenHandsetAlliance.com). The Alliance's website also explains why an open platform is good for
consumers, mobile operators, handset manufacturers, semiconductor companies, software
companies as well as software developers. In this way, the concept of an “open handset” helps
Android draw on all the advantages that are explained on the website, and tries to establish
superiority over those platforms that are not open. In addition, by explaining the usefulness of the
open platform for various actors or groups, the ideograph of openness tries to create interest and
mobilise support of these actors (cf. Van Lente, 2000, p. 45, Borup et al., 2006, p. 289).
Secondly, the reader learns that “Android brings Internetstyle innovation and openness to
mobile phones.” (Android.com) This time, “openness” links Android to the Internet. But what is the
“Internetstyle openness”? Internet itself is a very vague term, which can refer to a number of
different things4. But being an ideograph, the “Internetstyle openness” does not have to be anything
specific. The ideograph of openness links Android with Internet and its connotations, which include
easy access to large amounts of information and a broad spectrum of services.
Thirdly, the paragraph titled “Open” begins by saying that “Android was built from the
ground up to enable developers to create compelling mobile applications that take full advantage of
all a handset has to offer. It was built to be truly open.” (Android.com) What kind of openness is
being meant here? The paragraph talks about enabling developers to be able to create new kinds of
applications. In this sense, the openness refers to the device itself and to what a developer can do
with it. However, this characteristic also extends towards the user, because it allows developers to
create applications that are “compelling” to the users. Therefore, this openness also makes a link
4 It can refer for instance to the hardware which runs it, the software protocols, the content of websites, social
applications, services which one can use or order, or business which is done through it. (cf. Moody 2001)
between the developer and the user, suggesting ease of work for the former and benefit for the latter.
Next, we learn that Android is open source and that it “is built on the open Linux Kernel”
(Android.com). In this case, Android is linked to an increasingly popular way of creating software
(cf. Goldman and Gabriel, 2005; O'Reilly, 2001), and to a particular open source project which is
perhaps the most well known and successful of its kind. Step four of our method will deal with the
disputes of the open source nature of Android on the practical level, but for now, it is important to
see that rhetorically, “openness” helps Android draw on the success of other software projects.
Last but not least, the ideograph of openness is reinforced by several other ideographs. The
reader learns that with Android, all applications are created equal, that the boundaries between them
are broken down, and that development of new applications is fast and easy (Android.com). The
notions of equality, breaking barriers and fast and easy work themselves hold as ideographs. They
reinforce the ideograph of openness, because they create more links around Android and more
reasons why Android is superior to other platforms.
To summarize, the official Android website sketches the platform's “openness” in a number
of ways: it refers to the organization of the project, to the final device, to the internal design of the
software, to the Internet, as well as to a tradition that the Android project endorses. “Openness”
works as an ideograph here: it is a vague and illdefined general language term. The links that it
makes are rather vague, and therefore they leave space for one's own interpretation. Nevertheless,
the meanings that the ideograph connotes are generally positive: on Android.com, openness shows
the superiority of Android over other platforms.
2.4 Step 2 – Normative choices
“Try to make the underlying normative choices explicit.” (De Wilde, 2000, p. 26)
According to De Wilde (2000), concrete future visions carry normative assumptions with them.
These normative assumptions may sometimes be less obvious or difficult to identify, and therefore
the goal of the second step of the critical method is to make them visible. De Wilde says: “What
matters specifically is what we [philosophers or analysts of future discourses] believe to be the
proper meaning of the concepts used in descriptions of enticing futures, rather than to identify what
others may have in mind when relying on those same concepts.” (p. 24) Thus, it is now time to have
a closer look at some of the concepts which appear in the text, and the normative assumptions that
they carry. Again, a particular attention will be given to the notion of openness.
2.4.1 Open towards the future
The first step showed several dimensions of openness articulated on Android.com. One of these
dimensions is of particular interest due to its normative character. The website says that as a result
of being open source, the platform can not only be “liberally extended”, but moreover, it “will
continue to evolve as the developer community works together to build innovative mobile
applications.” (Android.com) There is an assumption that the platform will be further developed and
advanced, which also implies that in a way, the platform is not finalized yet and it is not intended to
be. Therefore, the notion of openness is futureoriented and carries a number of normative
assumptions: first, that Android will never be complete, second, that new technologies shall emerge,
third, that Android will be able to incorporate them quickly and easily, and fourth, that all of these
are desirable. In other words, openness helps to formulate the potential and the promise of Android.
Harro van Lente (1993, 2000) shows that in technology development, there is only a small
step from promise to requirement. He compares the dynamics of some technological developments
to an “unstoppable train” (2000, p. 57), in which technologists have a dual mandate: on the one
hand, they enjoy freedom to work on new discoveries, but on the other hand, they have to “take care
of the territory” (p. 54). They have to speak in the mandate that they have, which means that they
have to speak for 'technological progress' as a force which is inevitable and desirable. Van Lente
argues that subsequently, “once technical promises are shared they demand action, and appear as a
necessity for technologists to develop, and for others to support them” (p. 58). In other words, once
a technical promise becomes widely accepted, it easily turns into a requirement. Similarly, Android's
openness towards the future implies an obligation that the developers will keep working on the
platform. This openness works as a guarantee that the platform can never be finished or completed.
2.4.2 Defining innovative applications and more relevant user experience
The text on Android.com includes several claims about the kind of applications that the platform
will foster. For instance, it says that “Android breaks down the barriers between applications to
building new and innovative applications,” which will provide “a more relevant user experience.”
(Android.com) Although it is not clear what the applications and the user experience are like, these
claims carry several normative assumptions. Firstly, it is assumed that creating “new and innovative
applications” is desirable. It is desirable, because the users will benefit from it – they will have a
“more relevant experience.” Secondly, in order to build these “new and innovative applications,”
Android “breaks down the barriers” between applications. Breaking down the barriers is thus
legitimized for the sake of user benefit.
Now, what is meant by these “new and innovative applications”? The text explains that these
are applications that can “combine information from the web with data on an individual's mobile
phone.” The text goes on to give an example:
With Android, a developer can build an application that enables users to view
the location of their friends and be alerted when they are in the vicinity giving
them a chance to connect. (Android.com)
This example shows that innovative applications are those which allow users to “keep in touch” and
share information with each other – very much like “social applications” on the Internet. This
assumption about what an innovative application means also gives meaning to the notion of “more
relevant user experience”: being able to see what one's friends are doing, and in turn giving out
information about oneself is seen as a “relevant” use of an Android device. Thus, describing
“relevant” use in this way is normative, because it assumes certain kind of users – those who want
to share information about themselves. Those, who may actually want to keep their information to
themselves, are not spoken of.
To sum up, the second step of the critical method showed that the discourse on Android.com
carries a number of normative assumptions. First, it was shown that the discourse is futureoriented,
and that Android's openness towards the future plays an important role in articulating the potential
and the promise of Android. Second, it was shown that the rhetoric on Android.com assumes a
certain kind of user: one who is enthusiastic about innovations, and at the same time one who is not
too concerned about privacy and is happy to give out information about oneself. Whether or how the
real users accept this setting will be a question for the following chapters of this thesis.
2.5 Step 3 – Incongruities and paradoxes
“Try to identify incongruities or paradoxes in discourses about concrete futures.”
(De Wilde, 2000, p. 26)
De Wilde points out that myths about futures “have a paradoxical structure in the sense that they
contain inner contradictions that are hardly visible at first sight.” (2000, p. 27) The goal of this step
is to identify these contradictions in the texts studied. De Wilde identifies four paradoxes within
future discourses: “the knowledge paradox”, “the convenience paradox”, “the interaction paradox”,
and “the expansion paradox”. The second and the third of these are also present on Android.com.
2.5.1 The convenience paradox
The argument of the “convenience paradox” is that while smart technology may make our lives
more convenient in a number of ways, at the same time it will make our lives more complex and
pressured (p. 30). For instance, a laptop with Internet connection makes it possible for a person who
works on a computer to work almost anywhere, while at the same time it may imply an obligation
that the person should work everywhere.5 As a result, De Wilde argues that our desire for
convenience will grow even stronger, without our lives actually becoming more convenient overall
Similarly, Android claims to offer a lot, but it asks for a lot, too – both from application
developers and from its users. As for the developers, on the one hand, Android claims to offer fast
and easy application development. By this claim, it promises an easy and rewarding developer's life.
On the other hand, we now know that Android is not intended to be finalized: the platform is
supposed to evolve and to include “new cutting edge technologies as they emerge.” (Android.com)
For the developers, this promise means that they will have to keep learning these new technologies.
In other words, this is a hidden message to the developers that they should never expect to enter the
nirvana of having mastered the complete platform.
From the users' perspective, Android gives a promise of more exciting and convenient life:
for instance, users who use an Android device will be able to instantly see where their friends are,
and they will be able to easily stay in touch with them. However, what happens if this promise is
turned the other way round? Android users may start to expect that their other Android friends will
keep their own information up to date and always readily available. What if this everlasting keeping
in touch becomes a norm, something that is expected and that one needs to keep doing in order not
to be socially excluded? An exciting feature becomes a burden. Thus, the convenience paradox
shows that more options and possibilities may in fact mean more things to worry about.
5 Speaking of computers which make life more convenient, an anecdote says that computers make easier the kind of
work which, without computers, would not exist in the first place.
2.5.2 The interaction paradox
The argument of the interaction paradox is that technology which offers too little resistance is in the
end difficult to notice at all, and therefore it is not “suitable as a partner in a lasting relationship”
(De Wilde, 2000, p. 31). In other words, if a piece of technology is made too “unobtrusive”, it may
lead to it being overlooked and neglected – if users are shown little or no resistance, they will not
create any lasting relationship towards their artefacts. (Ibid.) The way Android is described on
Android.com suggests this possibility. Most of the focus is on the software, and when hardware is
mentioned, it always works in a seamless way with the software. Therefore, the physical device is
not so important. It is easily replaceable, and the user is supposed to create relationship towards the
software rather than the hardware. This may have consequences to how users treat or consume the
devices as material objects.
The interaction paradox is present yet at another, perhaps even more important level: it also
relates to how users interact with other users. The use of Android devices which is implied on
Android.com encourages one to interact with any of their friends quickly, instantly and at any time.
The possibility of interaction is always at hand and very easy. Indeed, the description of “Loopt”,
one of the social applications for Android, says: “Turn your phone into a social compass and never
be bored or lonely again!” (Android.com). This promise may sound nice and convenient, but De
Wilde's “interaction paradox” should warn us against the possibility of too easy an interaction.
Following De Wilde's argument and extending it from technological artefacts to people, it may in
fact become so easy to connect with anyone that one may cease to care about particular
relationships, and about putting effort into building lasting relationships. There is always someone
to connect with, which implies that if one of our friends is not available, we can always connect
with someone else. This phenomenon could perhaps also be called an “inflation of relationships”:
the number of people that we share personal information with is ever increasing, but in turn, the
relationships necessarily become more and more shallow.
2.6 Step 4 – Practices
“Move beyond the level of the language and analyse the actual practices in which
concrete futures will be situated.” (De Wilde, 2000, p. 36)
The third step looked at Android as text on a website. Now the goal is to move further and see what
is actually happening around Android. Thus, I will return to some notions of openness from the
previous steps and see how they hold up in practice.
2.6.1 Open source, or free software?
Step One showed that Android is presented as open source and that it draws on the popularity of
Linux. At a practical level, these claims are somehow problematic. Although the ideograph of
openness connects Android to Linux, Android is not open in the same way as Linux is. Android is
defined as an “open source” project rather than a “free software” project. Although free and open
source software is often talked about as one phenomenon, there is a difference between the notion of
free software and open source software.
Free software is a movement initiated mainly by Richard Stallman and his Free Software
Foundation (FSF). FSF defines free software as one that “gives you the user the freedom to share,
study and modify it. We call this free software because the user is free.” (FSF, 2009) Thus, FSF
stresses the freedom of the user to see how a program works, to modify it and to share it. In an age
when computers hold many personal information and structure our lives, FSF believes that this
freedom is a fundamental requirement for a free society. Having the source code accessible is means
towards assuring this freedom. Therefore, free software relates largely to a political belief.
In contrast, the concept of open source does not point so much towards the idea of a free
society, as to the way of developing software. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) describes open
source as a method for developing software that takes advantage of peer review and transparency of
the development process (OSI, 2009). In this point of view, an open development process can attract
very large numbers of developers, who bring more creativity, talent and resources that a company
producing proprietary software would never be able to afford. As a result, OSI argues, open source
software gives a promise of “better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end
to predatory vendor lockin” (2009). Therefore, open source relates to the way of creating software
and doing business rather than to political beliefs.
Thus, the emphasis within OSI is somewhere else than in case of FSF: while FSF
emphasizes the need for individual freedom, OSI emphasizes the potential of higher quality
software and more effective development process. Android takes sides with OSI: openness is
mentioned on Android.com very often, but freedom is not mentioned there at all. At a practical
level, the openness of Android seems to be of a pragmatic origin rather than of an ideological one –
it is supposed to give Android a competitive advantage on the market (cf. Goldman and Gabriel,
2005). In this respect, Android stands ideologically in a different place than Linux, which is
historically closer to FSF. Nevertheless, Android.com tries to make links with the success and
reputation of Linux.
2.6.2 The openness of the Android Open Source Project
Some of the contributors to the Android Open Source Project are concerned about “how much”
open source Android is. For example, there are complaints on the Android Open Source Project
(AOSP) discussion forums that the platform as such is being developed by Google's developers
“behind the closed doors,” and only “thrown out” as open source once in a while. There are also
complaints about not having proper roadmap and open discussions about the further development of
the platform. (Android Open Source platform mailing list, 2009)
On the one hand, this critique is legitimate. Compared to some successful open source
community projects such as Mozilla Firefox, Android really lacks in fully employing the “good
practices” of open source. On the other hand, the Android project is in many ways unique and
difficult to compare to projects such as Mozilla Firefox. Being an operating system for mobile
phones, Android is “tightly coupled” with other actors in the business, such as device manufacturers
and mobile carriers. As a result, there is a number of issues with patents and business interests of
various actors, which makes it extremely difficult for the project to be open in the same way as
some other open source projects (cf. e.g. posts by JeanBaptiste Queru in “Who know [sic] the
current status of Donut development” on Android Open Source platform mailing list).
2.6.3 Licensing Android – open to be closed?
Licensing is an important part of software distribution, because it delineates the ways in which a
piece of software may (not) be used. Therefore, a licence may also indicate how open software is.
Free and open source software licences may be divided into “permissive” and “nonpermissive”
ones. A permissive licence means that a derivative of a work originally licensed under this licence
may be licensed using a more restrictive licence. On the contrary, once a nonpermissive (also
known as “copyleft”) licence is applied to a piece of software, it also has to be applied to all its
derivatives, and it is not possible to apply more restriction on that piece of software. In practice, this
means that once someone creates some software under a nonpermissive licence, it is illegal for
anyone to take it, change it, and sell it as a commercial software. However, this is not the case with
Android. For the most part, Android is licensed under the “Apache licence”, which is a permissive
free software licence. In contrast to nonpermissive licences, it allows one to take a piece of
software licensed under this licence, modify it, and sell it as a commercial software.
The particular licence which has been chosen for Android has significant implications for
the openness of the platform. The story about openness on Android.com talks about easy life for the
developers, and it talks about the possibilities and potential of rich user experience, but it does not
talk about what the mobile operators can do with the platform. Due to the way Android is licensed,
it is not only the users, but also the carriers who may “tailor the phone to their interests”
(Android.com). They may take the Android platform, make modifications to it, and use the
modified version of the software in their devices, while not licensing the software as open any more.
Therefore, there is a paradox in the way Android is open – the openness of the platform
makes it possible for various actors involved in the development of an Android device to close down
the software. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense: for instance, a mobile phone manufacturer
may want to include a special feature into the operating system of their Android device. This feature
may be patented. Now, if Android was licensed under a “nonpermissive” license, the manufacturer
would not be able to protect their patent or knowhow: they would have to keep the technology,
including the modifications, open. If this was the case, the manufacturer may well just use some
other platform. Therefore, from the point of view of commercial viability of Android, it makes
perfect sense to license it in the way that it is licensed.
On the other hand, the paradox of openness is there: for example, various resources (Dean
and Yamaguchi, 2009; Geng, 2009) reported that China Mobile took the Android source code and is
customizing it for their own purposes. The result will be marketed in China Mobile's network as
“Open Mobile System.” Now, it is known that China uses “the Great China Firewall” to block some
Internet content to Chinese citizens (cf. e.g. The Open Society Institute, 2009). Similarly, the state
owned China Mobile may be interested in controlling the content that is accessible from their
mobile devices. With the way Android is licensed, it is legal for China Mobile to take the open
Android platform and make changes to the platform which will effectively cut off China Mobile's
subscribers who use a Chinese Android device from some Internet content or services.6 Thus, this
6 In contrast to this development, the negotiations of China Mobile with Apple, Inc. to market Apple's iPhone in
China Mobile's network have failed. Some say that the failure was due to the fact that Apple wanted the carrier to
openness of the Android platform is relational – what is open for someone (e.g. a mobile operator)
in one context (implementing their services), may not be so open for someone else (a customer) in
some other context (using the device).
The goal of this chapter was to analyse the way in which the Android platform is presented on its
official website, Android.com. De Wilde's (2000) method for rhetorical analysis was used. The first
step of the method showed that the website employs a number of ideographs, where openness is one
of them. Most significantly, it was shown that the ideograph of openness refers to the organization
of the project, to the final device, to the internal design of the software, to the Internet, as well as to
a tradition that the Android project endorses. In addition, it creates links with other ideographs such
as equality, breaking barriers, and easy work. The second step showed some normative assumptions
present in the text. It was shown that the openness of Android is futureoriented, which implies
obligations on the part of the developers. Further, it was shown that the discourse on Android.com
assumes a certain kind of users, namely those who want to use online services and share personal
information. The third step identified two paradoxes within the discourse on Android.com: the
convenience paradox, which threatens that what seems to be a fun and exciting feature will become
a norm and a burden, and the interaction paradox with looming inflation of interpersonal
relationships. Finally, the fourth step pointed to the difference between free and open source
software and to the position that Android takes here, as well as to some concerns about the
development process of the platform and a hidden danger of closing down the open platform.
Thus, this chapter showed that the official rhetoric on Android.com sees the openness of the
pay them a percentage of its profit from selling iPhone and related services, while others say that it was due to the
fact that Apple wanted to retain control of the applications which would be available for iPhone in China Mobile's
Network, which the carrier refused. (Apple iPhone is in many ways a device similar to an Android device, but in
terms of software licensing and distribution, it is the exact opposite – the operating system is proprietary and it is
strictly forbidden to change the software or the hardware of the device in any way.)
Android platform in that it is open towards the future, and that it is open towards new applications.
However, the rhetoric pays attention only to certain kinds of applications. Furthermore, it only pays
attention to users who want to use these kinds of applications. As a result, the official rhetoric sees
users as a rather homogeneous group. Moreover, the openness of the platform in practice seems to
extend much more to the mobile operators, who seem to have the real power to modify the platform.
All in all, this chapter looked at Android mainly as text written by the designers of the platform. It is
now time to follow Android to an altogether different place: it is time to go to shops where the
Android devices are sold, and see what meanings and interpretations are being constructed in this
3. Android delivered by mobile operators
The purpose of this chapter is to move from the official presentation of the Android platform on
Android.com to another stage in Android's lifetime. It will look at what happens when an Android
device has been manufactured, packed and bundled with services, and is marketed in the shops of
mobile companies. Whereas the first chapter looked largely at Android as a futureoriented text
charged with prophecies, promises and normative statements, this chapter will see Android as an
element in a much larger network of actors, including the actual devices, shops, shop assistants,
contracts, and business strategies of mobile companies. In particular, I want to focus on how this
network in which Android becomes embedded changes the openness of the platform. This chapter
argues that the openness of Android which was articulated on Android.com is not much present in
the shops any more. As Android becomes embedded into a much larger heterogeneous network, its
notions of openness change, while projected users are “configured”.
3.2 Method – carrying out shop inquiries
The empirical research for this chapter was carried out by means of shop inquiries. Thirteen
different shops were visited during May and June 2009. Seven of them were TMobile, six were
Vodafone. The TMobile shops were located in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The
Vodafone shops were located in Spain. The selection of shops was based on availability – I
happened to be in these three countries at that time, and TMobile and Vodafone were then the only
operators selling Android devices.
I did not make clear to the shop assistants that I was doing academic research about Android.
Instead, I introduced myself as a customer who has heard about “a Google phone,” the “TMobile
G1,” or the “HTC Magic,” and is interested in it and would like to learn more. I did not ask about
any specific things in the beginning of the conversation, because I wanted to see what the shop
assistants would start to talk about, and what they would associate the device with. Later on in the
conversation, I would ask more specific questions about Android, about use of the device, and about
comparison to other platforms and devices. Sometimes I also asked explicitly about the openness of
the device, refering to having read that the device was “based on an open platform.” In addition, I
tried to pay attention to how the Android devices were presented in shops – if they were on show,
whether they occupied any special position, if there was any advertising directly addressing these
devices, and so on. I took field notes after each shop inquiry.
There proved to be some limitations with this approach. Firstly, this research cannot be taken
as representing all shops selling Android devices, and it cannot try to give an 'objective' account. On
the other hand, even this limited selection has its meaning and value: the purpose of this exercise is
not to give an overview of all shops and an assessment of their employees. The purpose is to find
some meanings around the Android platform that are constructed in shops where the Android
devices are sold. I believe that this approach is appropriate for this purpose. Moreover, the
appearance and setting of this kind of shops are largely standardized, and therefore even findings
from such a limited selection might have some wider validity.
Secondly and notwithstanding the standardized character of the shops in question, it turned
out that the responses of the shop assistants greatly varied – individual shop assistants apparently
had different knowledge from one another about the Android devices and the Android platform7. As
a result, it was sometimes difficult to draw clear conclusions from this part of research.
Nevertheless, there were a number of common themes in the shops visited, and there are some
meanings, preferences and interpretations of the Android platform which were found in a majority
of shops visited. The following paragraphs will address these common themes and meanings. But
first of all, I will try to sketch an appropriate theoretical framework for them.
3.3 The Android platform within a heterogeneous network
The previous chapter looked at the Android platform mainly as text – it was a critical rhetorical
analysis of the official Android presentation on the Internet, with some references to actual practices
around the platform in the last step of the analysis. This chapter is another, quite different take on
the meanings of openness around the Android platform. It looks at the platform at a different stage
of its life, and in a radically different setting. The official website is an environment which is largely
controlled by those who create the content of the website. Thus, they can easily create a nice and
smooth story about Android, with not much interference from the “outside world”. In contrast, this
chapter deals with the Android platform in a radically different and much more complex setting.
What happened with Android between the previous chapter and this one? It was acquired by
a mobile phone manufacturer. It might have been adapted to the manufacturer's liking. It was
implemented into an actual device. The manufacturer signed a contract with a mobile operator for
7 It should perhaps be noted that at the time of the inquiries, all of the TMobile shops had been selling the TMobile
G1 for at least a few months. The inquiries in Spanish Vodafone, however, were carried out in the first few weeks
after the HTC Magic was put on sale there. This relative time shift may have influenced the shop assistants'
familiarity with Android and therefore also their responses.
an exclusive distribution. The mobile operator also may have asked to make changes to the software.
The implementation was tested, and finally the device was manufactured and loaded with Android.
It was packed in a box and shipped to the mobile operator's shop. Meanwhile, the mobile operator
created an advertising campaign for the device, including Internet presentation, leaflets, posters,
stickers, and so on. They also created a business plan – how the device would be sold, for what
price, with which contracts, and under what conditions. The shop assistants were told that there was
a new phone coming. Some shops put posters with the device in their windows, some even put up
special showcase pedestals with a number of the phones on show.
Thus, the Android platform came a long way from Android.com to the shops – it was
“squeezed” into a device, it was perhaps altered to meet additional demands, it was packed and
shipped halfway around the world, where it was unpacked again, and put on a table or behind a glass
window. In addition, it was portrayed in posters, leaflets and magazines. It was also assigned a
particular place in the hierarchy of other devices and services. Thus, there is a vast number of things
which now more or less directly interact with Android. Some of these are material things (such as
packaging), while others are regulations, images, virtual structures, or people. They all interact with
Android in one way or another, and they all participate in contesting meanings around the platform.
In order to better understand this assembly of material and nonmaterial things, humans and
nonhumans, this chapter will borrow the notion of a “heterogeneous network” (Law, 1987; Akrich,
1992) from semiotic approaches to studying technology. The advantage of this approach is that it
does not make a priori distinctions between human and nonhuman influences in technological
development, and it does not make assumptions about a backdrop of social, economic, or technical
factors (cf. Bijker and Law, 1992, p. 13). For instance, Madeleine Akrich (1992) says that
heterogeneous networks “bring together actants of all types and sizes, whether human or
nonhuman” (p. 206). This neutrality offers an advantage for the purpose here, because it does not set
categories where a researcher may not need them. In case of studying the openness of the Android
platform in shops, it is not so important to distinguish all these categories. Instead, the purpose is to
observe the heterogeneity of the network around the Android platform, and to see how the various
elements participate in contesting the meanings of the platform.
Furthermore, this chapter will use Steve Woolgar's (1991) concept of “configuring the user”.
Woolgar argues that as designers design technological artefacts, they “configure” users by “defining
the identity of putative users, and setting constraints upon their likely future actions” (p. 59). In
other words, Woolgar sees a technological artefact as text, and users as readers who read this text.
There is some interpretative flexibility of the text, but still, it is the designers and engineers who
delimit this flexibility (Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003, pp. 78). The problem with Woolgar's approach
is that he gives too much agency to designers, and too little to users. Luckily, Woolgar's notion of
configuration has been successfully extended by Mackay et al. (2000), who argue that as much as
designers configure users, they themselves are configured by users as well as by other influences.
Moreover, Mackay et al. argue that the boundary between designers and users is itself “fluid and,
indeed, configured” (Mackay et al., 2000, p. 737). This chapter will use this extended notion of
configuration, keeping in mind the points made by Mackay et al. (2000). We shall start unravelling
the heterogeneous networks in mobile operators' shops by looking at how the Android devices are
officially presented in shops.
3.4 Android devices in shops – Android exceptional?
Observations showed that both the TMobile G1 in TMobile and the HTC Magic in Vodafone were
regarded as important products worth special attention. Even a few months after the G1 went on
sale, many TMobile shops were advertising the device using large posters inside the shop. A
majority of the shops visited had one or two devices “on show” for the customers to try out. One
shop in Amsterdam even had a special “pedestal” featuring four of these devices. Similarly, Spanish
Vodafone paid a lot of attention to making the HTC Magic visible. Their Internet site featured a
countdown to the moment when the device would be put on sale. In the first few weeks of selling
the HTC Magic, nearly each of the visited shops had a large poster with the device in their window.
As a matter of fact, some of them had not got the device yet, but the advertising was there.
Thus, both operators tried to establish the Android devices as special and exceptional. What
do operators find exceptional about Android devices? Firstly, TMobile's advertisements say that the
G1 is “a phone built for the Internet”. This slogan suggests that what is important or exceptional
about an Android device is that it lets one use the Internet more or perhaps in different ways than
other devices. Secondly, a shop assistant in the Amsterdam shop which featured the G1 “pedestal”
told me that they created it because the G1 was the first device with a new operating system by
Google called Android. His reply suggests that what he finds exceptional about the device is that it
is the first of its kind, and that the operating system is by Google, a well known, powerful, and
successful company. Similarly, Vodafone's website says that Android is “a spectacular operating
system by Google. You have never seen anything like it.” (Vodafone, 2009) Vodafone also refers to
Google and to the fact that Android is something new and, in this case, spectacular.
Therefore, according to the way Android devices are presented in advertising and in shops,
the mobile operators try to establish them as something exceptional. However, this uniqueness does
not stem out of the Android software as such, but from the fact that the devices are supposed to be
something new, and they give a promise of allowing the user to do something new. This also
suggests the kind of user that is being configured for Android: it is a user who wants to be able to do
new things with her mobile device, rather than doing old things better, for instance. It is also a user
who is interested in having the latest and newest artefacts.
3.5 Android under contracts
Contracts are another element which play a significant role in contesting Android in mobile
operator's shops. Both TMobile and Vodafone bundle their Android devices with contracts. It is
impossible to buy an Android device from the operators without signing a one or twoyear contract.
Moreover, Vodafone requires customers to sign up to an additional 12€/month data plan, and it locks
the Magic only to Vodafone network. TMobile does not require the data plan, although it strongly
recommends it, and it does not lock the G1 to TMobile network.
The contracts are very much present in the shops. Most of the devices on show were
accompanied by leaflets with information about some of the offered contracts. The shop assistants
also often talked about contracts – perhaps due to the mandatory data plan, all of the shop assistants
in Spanish Vodafone shops talked about contracts as one of the first things. TMobile shop assistants
also talked about contracts, but only some of them mentioned them in the very beginning. Most of
them strongly recommended the additional data plan.
These observations suggest that mobile operators consider contracts to be an important part
of an Android device. Both Vodafone and TMobile require contracts, while Vodafone even requires
an additional data plan. Moreover, Vodafone locks the device so that it can only be used with their
SIM cards. This practice may relate to the fact that Android devices are still new: supposing that the
Android platform is successful and will be adopted by more manufacturers and thus become more
common, it is possible that some of the devices will not be so strongly tied to mobile operators'
contracts. Nevertheless, it is a way of “closing” the device, which the mobile operators employ for
their own benefit. They advertise Android devices as exceptional, but in turn, they make the
customers stay with them and pay a premium. Thus, these practices “configure” a user who is a
loyal customer and who is willing to pay extra money.
3.6 Android described by shop assistants
Notwithstanding official advertising and standardized appearance of mobile operators' shops, shop
assistants and what they say about the devices and services play a crucial role in contesting
meanings around these products: they advise the customer, make her wait, introduce the devices and
services, and make an impression of what is a good deal and what is not. Therefore, this section will
look at how shop assistants describe Android devices, what qualities they emphasize, and what
preferences they articulate or imply.
3.6.1 Describing an Android device – Android commodified
A large part of the shop assistants described the Android devices primarily according to what they
look like and what physical features they have got. Characteristics which mattered to most of them
were features such as the touch screen, the camera, and, in case of the G1, the physical “qwerty”
keyboard. In addition, they often described the devices in general terms such as “really good”, or
“one of the top”.
Thus, many shop assistants did not find anything special about the software of Android
devices. They did not talk explicitly about Android. When asked what one can actually do with an
Android device, the shop assistants usually refered to its Internet capabilities. They often said that
the users can go on the Internet, and “do anything they want”. When asked what this “anything”
was, some shop assistants seemed to find the question stupid, and some said that it meant that one
can view any website she wants.
The fact that a large part of the shop assistants did not regard the particular operating system
of a device important may be related to the phenomenon of “commodification8 of software” (cf.
O'Reilly, 2005; Stutz, 2004). The notion of commodification describes a process during which one
part of an industry becomes to a large extent stabilized and its products become standardized. As a
8 Both words “commodification” and “commoditization” are used in this context, and they seem to mean the same.
Some authors (e.g. O'Reilly 2005) even use both of them interchangeably in one piece of writing.
result, the key profitmaking value within the industry shifts from the newly stabilized part into
another segment of the industry. At the same time, product prices in the stabilized segment
decrease, and differences between products of different companies blur. Therefore, consumers cease
to care about the particular producer of a product that they buy, nor do they care about what is
inside of the product, as long as the product works in the way they expect it to work.
O'Reilly (2005) and Stutz (2004) argue that whereas in the 1980s, computer hardware
became commodified and the key value of the industry shifted to creating software, a similar shift
has been happening in recent years with software: software is becoming commodified, and the core
value shifts from creating software to providing online services. Following this argument and
assuming that software is becoming commodified, it is not so surprising that a large number of the
shop assistants in TMobile and Vodafone shops did not address the particular operating system that
a mobile device is using. From this perspective, software becomes “less visible” to the user, and it
does not matter so much what operating system the device is using. What matters is what the device
looks like and what it promises to be able to do. In this case, what “counts” is that the device has a
large colour touch screen, and that one can access Internetbased services9.
3.6.2 Android device – a fun tool, or an office in the pocket?
Picking up on the notion that one can “do anything they want” with an Android device, I was
interested what kinds of uses shop assistants associate with Android devices. Some of them
suggested that an Android device is like “a little computer”. Does that mean that one can use it in
the way computers are commonly used, for instance to work with office documents or with PDF
files? I set out to inquire about this question: is it possible to open PDF files and work with office
documents on Android?
9 The notion of commodification also points to a likely motivation of companies such as Google to invest their
resources into an open source operating system – the software is supposed to serve as an “intermediary”, through
which the users will want to access the companies' online services. These services are what really generates the
Some shop assistants were able to give a wellinformed account on this topic10. On the other
hand, many others were taken by surprise with this question. One shop assistant in Brno did not
know what PDF files were. Nevertheless, she convincingly replied that with Android, one can do
anything on the Internet, and therefore one can open any file that one can download. Another shop
assistant in Brno said that he was not sure if the TMobile G1 could open PDF or office documents,
and he set out to find out on the Internet. After a few minutes, he concluded that he could not find
any evidence that the device had these capabilities. Nevertheless, he said that in his opinion, a
device like this one should be able to do that. Therefore, instead of giving a piece of information, he
gave me his own belief, which fuelled my hopes as a potential customer. These two responses give
an account of a notion which is being created around the Android devices in shops – a notion that
one can do “anything”. However, this “anything” is often very unclear and illdefined.
To summarize, many shop assistants were not sure about the capabilities of opening a PDF
file or an office document, and concluded that it was not possible. Sometimes they clearly did not
expect this kind of question. The explanation may be that they do not associate a mobile phone with
tasks such as viewing and editing documents. Rather, they see mobile phones as devices which are
used for entertainment and leisure activities, such as listening to music, taking photographs, or in
case of Android, using popular Internet services such as YouTube or Facebook. Thus, the meanings
which are ascribed to Android devices in shops are those of an entertainment device rather than a
work tool. Similarly, the users who are projected through these meanings and preferences are those
who want to spend time on the Internet and have fun, rather than those who would like to be able to
work or read electronic books.
10 For instance, one of the Vodafone shop assistants in Spain said that currently, there were no Android applications to
handle PDF or Word documents, but that he believed that someone was already working on them, and that they
would be sooner or later available. As a matter of fact, it seems that this prediction has turned out to be true: at that
time (May 2009), there were no applications on the Android Market to handle PDF or Word documents. As of now,
there is a number of PDF viewers (both free and paid), as well as a paid application called “Documents to go”,
which can handle both Microsoft Word and Excel files.