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Android's Not-So-Open Market: Where Google Carries Water for Telecom Carriers

Tethering apps are suddenly disappearing off the Google (GOOG) Android Market. Google says it isn't removing them, just appeasing the major carriers. The phone carriers know they make a killing in charging for phone tethering -- and Google's so-called open marketplace is willing to become even more closed to line phone company pockets.
The free tethering apps allow Android users to use their phones as wireless modems that can deliver the Internet to laptops when wi-fi isn't available. According to CNET, the apps were gone this week on AT&T (ATT), Verizon (V) Wireless, and T-Mobile (T) USA. Sprint seems to be the only carrier that hasn't waged war against these apps -- so far, at least.
Taking tethering apps down from the Android Marketplace doesn't prevent people from using them, of course. It's still possible to download them from other sources -- the app makers' Web sites, for instance.
It's the money, stupid

Tethering isn't a control issue, but a money issue. Three of the four carriers have tethering options built into their data plans:

  • AT&T: average $20/month
  • Verizon: average $20/month
  • T-Mobile: average $15/month
  • Sprint: Free (depending on device)
If the average smartphone bill runs around, say, $80, the tethering would bring in one-fourth more revenue per month per customer. Getting even a fraction of AT&T's 70 million customers committed to tethering plans would bring in serious additional money. It is no coincidence that the one carrier that is still allowing these free tethering apps -- Sprint -- has nothing to gain from banning them.
Carriers haven't been quiet about tethering, either. In March, AT&T sent threatening emails to customers it thought might be using an app to tether. By April, it was automatically signing up these same suspected abusers to a $45-a-month 4 GB tethering plan -- without any more notices from AT&T. The Android Market censorship is just another act in this drawn out drama.
Android not so open source anymore

While the market censorship is an annoyance for consumers who have to find their free tethering apps elsewhere, it's a more serious blow to Google's so-called open source system. Google says it isn't banning free tethering apps -- just respecting the carriers' wishes.
Here's Google's explanation from the website Fierce Broadband Wireless:

A spokesman for Google said while it is not blocking the app in Android market, it is making it unavailable for download at the request of wireless carriers. The spokesman added that if an application is in direct violation of the terms and conditions of a usage contract, a carrier can request Google make the app unavailable, and Google will regulate those.

The carriers, of course, say that they didn't ask the apps to be removed. However, the updated terms of service for the three carriers considers tethering using third-party products a violation of the contract.
Google's capitulation to money-hungry carriers is the company's latest misstep as it tries to get a handle on the unruly Android Marketplace. As my BNET colleague Erik Sherman noted, Google is tripping over itself trying to rein in the open platform by playing favorites with vendors and forcing manufacturers to follow its rules. In short, "In a quest to gain control of Android, Google is destroying the very factors that made it successful... Google's spin was that it was open source."
Consumers and developers come to Android to get away from Apple's (APPL) aggressive regulation and censorship. In fact, being the unApple is Google's main advantage. By trying to regulate what the consumer can do with the phone and how he or she can do it, Google is just coming off as a second-rate Apple -- and is pissing off users in the process.

Photo courtesy of osde8info // CC 2.0
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