Android: Not Free as in Speech, but does it really matter?

So I was at work the other day and a tweet grabbed my attention. It said “Steve Jobs vindicated: Google Android is not Open” and linked to an article on The Register. After reading through the article I was reminded of my childhood when kids would say things like “yeah, well you eat snails!“. Steve Jobs vindicated!! Well I bet he’ll sleep better for all of that!

It’s not that I am an Apple basher, I have an iPod Nano after all, but how can a company with no Open Source culture to speak of start pointing the finger at another? It’s like being back in the playground!
The fact of the matter is that Android is not a totally Open Source platform, but it never has been. As the article points out, Google Maps and the Android Market Place are proprietary and I would not expect either to be made open source any time soon. But does that matter? Judging by the number of people buying Android handsets I’d say not at all! It has to be said that most people buying Android devices are oblivious to the fact that they are touted as open source with many of them not knowing what that means anyway – it simply does not matter!
I opted for an Android device well over a year ago now and can’t see myself buying an iPhone (or Windows Phone 7) in the near future and this has nothing to do with the ‘Freeness’ of the operating system. Bear in mind that the Windows Phone 7 platform was not released when I made my decision so I had a straight choice between Android and iOS.
As a developer I was interested in writing applications for the mobile platform and Apple’s Developer Agreement was far too restrictive for my liking and with draconian decisions like iOS not supporting Flash® and then all the controversy surrounding MonoTouch my gut told me to steer clear. That said, a big part of the decision was that I already know how to program in Java so had a head start with Android, whereas iOS requires me to learn Objective C. I was also able to download the Android SDK without needing to register with Google (although some people would say that they knew I was there anyway!) while Apple requires me to register with the site first (which will result in more Apple-based Spam in my Inbox – I mentioned that I already had an iPod!). Then there is the cost of developing for the Apple App Store, albeit only $99/year, while targeting the Android Market Place is only $25. This does have it’s drawbacks, the recent Android Market Place ‘Hack’ for one and just plain crap applications for another, and highlights the Danger of Free but life is all about mitigating risk, some people pay to do it, others apply common sense and will need to deal with the concequences if they get it wrong.
But of course, most of the people buying Android devices are not developers, just the run of the mill public, so why do they do it? I think that it all comes down to choice. In Apples corner there is the iPhone while in the Android corner there are dozens of phones from HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson. While the iPhone is a fantastic piece of technology (no denying it), choice is good, people like choice. That said, they are also mindful of the cost of ownership so they tend to go for the devices that do all of the flashy things that the iPhone does (and of course the Flash® things it cannot do) without having to spend £200 plus having to take out a two year contract.
So at the end of the day (I believe) whether Android is Open Source or not does not really make a jot of difference in the real world. Most users of Android devices don’t know what Open Source is, or just don’t care. So vindicated or not, Steve Jobs playground antics will not really have any impact on the general public and their apparent love of Android.