When Open Platforms Get Closed: AT&T Cripples Backflip

The strength of an open platform is the flexibility it offers to companies, developers and consumers. That openness is a factor in the rapid growth of the Android (s goog) platform in the smartphone world. Companies can customize the interface, such as HTC with Sense, and consumers can install any Android apps they desire in order to personalize the user experience. AT&T (s t) has just entered the Android space with the Backflip by Motorola (s mot), but as new owners are pointing out, the phone is crippled to the point of being a closed device.
We’d already heard that AT&T had replaced Google search with Yahoo search (s yhoo) throughout the phone. This move alone is rather bizarre, given consumer preference for Google search and especially since Android is Google’s own platform. And now complaints are surfacing that the carrier wasn’t content to stop there in crippling the Backflip.
AT&T has pre-installed some special apps that are not part of the Android package — AT&T programs tied to the carrier’s network that offer functions often better served by regular Android programs. There are a dozen of these special apps, but while normally users could just ignore them if they don’t want to use them — or better yet, uninstall them — unfortunately, AT&T has taken away the user’s ability to remove this bloatware from the Backflip. The carrier can’t make you use the special apps, but it can darn sure prevent you from removing them in order to save space.
Most Android owners get apps from the Android Market — a good source, to be sure. A strength of the open Android platform is the ability to download and install apps from third-party sites, too, such as directly from developers. This is often how beta versions of new apps get distributed. Unfortunately, this is not possible on the AT&T Backflip. The carrier has disabled the ability of users to install apps from any source other than the Android Market. This must make the Backflip the only Android phone in consumer’s hands that lacks this function.
It’s one thing for a carrier to leave its mark on a handset it carries. That’s business as usual. But effectively closing down the owner’s ability to take advantage of the open Android platform is just silly.
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