Flipping Back in Time

AT&T, the Backflip, and Carrier Control of Android

As has been covered extensively online, AT&T's edition of the Motorola Backflip has disabled the ability to install third-party applications except via the Android Market. Presumably, the rationale is to make it more difficult to install applications that violate AT&T's terms of service, since AT&T can get Google to yank apps from the Android Market that violate those terms of service.

All of this is within AT&T's rights. About the only thing that could stop them — Google withholding the Android Market if third-party application sources were blocked — apparently did not happen. Otherwise, so long as Motorola was willing, AT&T is perfectly welcome to modify Android to disable this setting. That being said, I am not aware of any other firm blocking this setting, and it may be that the Backflip sold to other carriers does not have the limitation.

This situation is unlikely to remain static, however.

First, you can still install apps on the AT&T Backflip beyond those in the Market. Right now, it involves installing the Android SDK, which is a bit heavyweight for the problem. However, somebody who has this itch to scratch will not find it too tough to create a stripped-down app installer, packaging only the pieces of the SDK that are needed for the task. Most, if not all, of those pieces are even open source. This might even be considered useful beyond the Backflip, for people who prefer to download their apps via desktop browsers and install them via USB, instead of pecking away at tiny keyboards to accomplish the same end on-device.

Second, this will accelerate attempts to hack the Backflip, either to allow full root access, or at least to find a way to flip the setting. There is a good chance that the only change was made to the settings user interface, and that the setting itself is still in there. While changing that setting cannot be accomplished through the SDK without firmware privileges, there may be ways around that limitation. After all, far more has been accomplished. This is far from an ideal solution, of course — you may be served by just getting a different device — but I am sure there are some in the community who view AT&T's moves as an attack, or at least an opportunity to flex their Android firmware sleuthing skills.

The danger is this becoming commonplace. Part of the (somewhat unrealized) potential of Android is the fact that you are not limited to the Android Market. In fact, I find it quite disappointing that Google considers this freedom to be optional — had Google withheld the Android Market from AT&T, I suspect AT&T would have backed down.

One of the best ways to counteract this threat, therefore, is to work to have non-Market options that are popular and compelling. The only reason Google might have been able to force third-party installs to be allowed is by withholding the Market. The reason we, the community, might be able to force third-party installs to be allowed is to make it moronic to ship a device lacking that capability, because users would think the device to be too limited. Right now, most AT&T Backflip users probably are not missing this feature, and while that is good for AT&T and Motorola, it is bad for Android.

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