Is the OUYA Console the Only Truly Open Device on the Android Platform?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on July 13, 2012

From The News Desk

By now you’ve heard of the OUYA console. Designed by Yves Behar and currently standing at over five times its original funding goal, OUYA has been grabbing headlines for the past week, as the tech press jumps over itself to cover it.

The OUYA isn’t exciting just because it’s a new console that will plug into the television, though that aspect of the product doesn’t hurt. The exciting part about OUYA is its Android base. But to understand why OUYA’s approach to building an Android product is exciting, it's useful to look at the history of Android and its promise. Amusingly, Apple provided the perfect place to begin back in 2007, when the iPhone changed everything.

By building the first all-touch smartphone in an age where “smartphone” meant “phone with a keyboard," Apple's iPhone kicked the technological landscape in the teeth and began the sprint to a mobile Web. For everything that it did right, however, Apple had its detractors. Among them was Google, which was working on its own mobile operating system.

Google criticized iOS for being a “walled garden” that required users to play by Apple’s rules or not at all. The search company started the Open Handset Alliance, a group of mobile phone manufacturers that would build open source, hacker-friendly phones that embraced technological tinkerers instead of publishing them. Android, the Open Handset Alliance’s operating system, was meant to be an open field to Apple’s walled garden.

That was five years ago. Today OUYA is the only company building a truly open, hacker-friendly, and mass-market device on the Android platform. To illustrate the difference between Google and OUYA’s approach to an “open” platform, one need look no further than Google’s Nexus Q.

Introduced at Google’s I/O Developer Conference, the Nexus Q is Google’s (second) attempt to edge its way into the living room. This oddball has an Android core and similar specs to the OUYA console, and Google touted the Q’s accessibility during the product’s debut. What makes the Q so “open,” then? A micro-USB port.

Now, to be fair, a lot has been accomplished via that little micro-USB port. Developers have already managed to take the Q from a streaming media player that is hamstrung without another Android device present into a fully functional Android device in its own right.

Other Android devices don’t offer even that access, with a number of retailers (see: every one that sells an Android device) locking down their devices’ bootloaders in an attempt to halt users from gaining root access to their devices. Many devices have had their bootloaders cracked open by determined developers, but manufacturers – and carriers – have made it clear that Android is not the open platform that it was supposed to be.

Consider HTC, a Taiwanese smartphone maker. The company announced in May of 2011 that its phones would ship with unlocked bootloaders and developed an online tool to unlock phones that didn’t. Yet, somehow, the company’s new flagship phone, the HTC One X, shipped with a locked bootloader and no sanctioned way of unlocking it.

Or look, instead, to Motorola. Before the company’s Motorola Mobility division was sold to Google and before Android became a well-known name, Motorola built the Droid, the first Android device with a huge marketing push behind it. The original Droid shipped with an unlocked bootloader and popularized the idea of Android’s openness, spawning a number of phones in the Droid line and kickstarting the Android phone revolution.

You know how well that’s worked out. Motorola’s newest phone, the Atrix HD, will ship with a locked bootloader to “meet requirements,” according to a statement made to The Verge. Motorola hasn’t mentioned whose “requirements” it is attempting to meet, but one look at the device’s prominent AT&T logo should offer a clue.

As one “industry insider” tells The Verge: "What you see with all this stuff is the rebuilding of the walled garden. Carriers have had control for so long they want to continue to feel like they're in control."

While the carriers’ control only reaches so far, their white-knuckle grip on Android’s throat has left its mark on the operating system and left Google’s dreams of an open platform wheezing out its last breath. Even the company’s Nexus line, a Google-branded effort that is meant to exemplify Android in its purest state, has made concessions to the carriers’ will.

OUYA is supposed to be different. The company is leaving the device open to hardware and software changes, allowing users to fiddle with the device’s core mechanisms without voiding their warranties. According to the console’s Kickstarter page, the OUYA’s hardware will be accessible via a standard screwdriver. Developers and users alike can access the console’s version of Android 4.0 and are free to make changes without fear of “bricking” the console and watching their $99 console turn into the world’s most beautiful doorstop.

Financing the OUYA console via Kickstarter is fitting. A console built with the express intent of becoming an open platform requires the support of the people, and Kickstarter allows consumers to vote with their wallets and put their hard-earned cash behind a project that may or may not succeed. And OUYA very well may fail, despite surpassing its funding goal. Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report does a good job of explaining the potential issues with the OUYA console that the company will have to address when it comes time for their project to ship.

The console could very well tank and fail to attract developer support (though that seems unlikely, given the fact that the company’s 400 developer-specific bundles are spoken for) or have some critical hardware flaw that causes the box to explode in a spectacle of gleaming, Yves Behar-designed plastic.

It’s the promise of an open platform that’s exciting. With over 35,000 backers and the freedom of operating without carriers breathing down its neck, a $99 console from an upstart company may succeed where Google has failed by showing that Android and the dream of an open platform are still alive, if not well.

[Image credit: wikimedia]