webOS, Android, and hacking: which is more open?
Smartphones are tricky animals sometimes, especially if you’re a power user or geek (as many of us are these days). You want to get into the very guts of your device and find out all of the cool and secret things about it, try out leaked software and hack it all to hell. But unless you’ve got extra money lying around that you like to blow on new devices every few weeks, you definitely don’t want to do anything to actually brick your device.
Testing those limits is fun, but everyone gets upset when they go past the point of no return. Luckily for us webOS users, ‘bricking’ your device is near impossible aside from breaking the device in half. If you run into a problem with your device, just go to the Palm website and grab the webOS doctor for the version and carrier of your choice. There's a very clear set of steps you can go through to fix nearly any serious webOS issue.
Win/Win. You get to mess with your device and not worry (too much) about breaking it beyond repair.
Google's precarious position
On the other hand, though, people looking to hack away on Android devices run into more serious issues, as Engadget’s Nilay Patel explained in an excellent story about his recent dance with device-death. I’ll spare you the details, but to sum it up, just read this statement from near the end of the article:
“Google can't keep implicitly condoning Android hacking and trading on the enthusiasm of its community unless it requires manufacturers to provide restore tools for every device. Sometimes you just want to go home again.”
When you create a platform that is going to be completely open to tinkering with and you encourage your community to actively mess with that platform, you ought to create some kind of backup plan. Google obviously knows this, but what can they do about it? With so many carriers and manufacturers using the OS on their devices, it makes it difficult for even Google to offer a backup plan. The "Open" in Android cuts both ways: it's open for users to hack, sure, but it's also open for manufacturers and carriers to try to prevent it. Whether Google can (or even wants to) exercise some muscle to resolve the situation remains an open question.
webOS - The Anti-Brick Platform
Now, take a look at the linux based webOS platform, which is also completely open to hacking / patching / theming / tinkering, and you can actually see the ‘ideal world’ that Patel imagines coming to reality:
“In my ideal world, consumers would be able to download official stock Android builds for their devices directly from Google, but I'm not ignorant of the carrier- and manufacturer-driven reality we live in.”
webOS has its fair share of carrier problems, but there is one key difference between what Palm has created and what these Android devices represent; You can actually restore the base OS for any webOS device using the official recovery tools provided by Palm. You don’t need suspicious flashing tools or malicious leaked OS versions. You get the perfectly clean and officially supported versions directly from the creators, no questions asked.
To be completely fair, webOS devices aren’t completely brick-proof, but the system is safe enough and simple enough that many of the processes that kill Android devices can be done by practically anyone who has the patience to learn the processes. You don’t have to flash ROMs or jailbreak your device and worry about any of the consequences that come with said actions. You just have to grab some install files (executables, ipks, source code, etc...) and the proper webOS Doctor (for emergency repairs) and go have some fun.
Say what you will about how big and active the Android developer community is, it is only a matter of time before they are educated about how awesomely open webOS really is. We get the same access to our devices that they do, with an amazing community to back it all up and the fail-safes to remove the chances for unnecessary loss. This is all just one more example of something that they could be educated about:
Want to dig into the webOS source-code and make crazy cool changes? Go right ahead.... Want to do that with Android? Just be aware that sometimes, there’s a brick for that. :P