Why Vibrant Issues haven't Sunk Samsung and T-Mobile

Aaron Poffenberger

On July 15th T-Mobile rolled out the Samsung Vibrant to much fanfare. The Vibrant was the first Galaxy S device available in the US. With fantastic specs including a beautiful AMOLED screen and Samsung's Humming Bird processor, on paper — and in real life — the Galaxy S phones were the devices to beat. Almost.

Within hours day-one adopters were finding the phone had a very noticeable lag when switching with lagging and wildly inaccurate and unusable GPS results. In fact, before the phone was officially available Samsung had acknowledged the lag problem and importantly had promised a fix would be available soon. In addition to announcing the lag and GPS fixes, Samsung announced via their twitter account that froyo would be available to to all networks by the end of September. From all appearances, Samsung and T-Mobile had learned from the mistake that was the Samsung Behold II.

Where's the Fury?

Flash forward almost 3 months. T-Mobile are sending out an OTA update to the Vibrant that may or may not address the lag fix but does appear to address GPS problems and froyo seems a distant dream. What happened? Why have T-Mobile been so remarkably silent on the issue? Why have Samsung delayed so specatularly long in fixing the GPS? More importantly, where's the community outrage?

Ponder this for a moment: if the iPhone 4 (or any Apple product) had a fundamentally broken GPS or even the very noticeable lag the Vibrant has displayed the invective and outrage would have been deafening. There would be class-action lawsuits threatened and under way and, probably over the top, coverage on major news networks. In fact, all these things happened when users discovered the antenna problems of the iPhone 4. And yet other than a bit of power-user kvetching the hue and cry about the Vibrant is mostly missing. Why?

I think the lack of clamor is the result of two facts. In the first place, Samsung aren't Apple. Apple get a lot of media coverage. More than any other tech company according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Apple and Steve Jobs are the darlings of tech and "mainstream" media reporting. If it has to do with Apple, it's tech news. This of course creates a storm of positive and negative feedback loops. Good news is magnified as well as bad. Samsung, on the other hand, is that company that makes LCD TVs. Oh, and also Android phones.

Hackers to the Rescue

Secondly, and more importantly, the Samsung Vibrant is an Android device. Therefore not only can it be jail-broken, it can be hacked. And being hackable has kept the fury in check.

Since the Vibrant's initial launch and subsequent discovery of its flaws the hacker community have been hard at work providing fixes, hacks (work arounds) and support. The One-Click Lag Fix has probably done more to keep T-Mobile and Samsung from taking more heat than either realizes. Certainly more than either has publicly acknowledged.

What should have been a huge issue with the Vibrant has been dropped to the level of nuissance. Nobody's reporting on the issue any more. Reviews of the Vibrant are mostly glowing. Without the work of the hacker community, it could have been worse. Much worse.

The Walled-Garden Gambit

This last point should not be lost on Samsung, T-Mobile or any Android-device manufacturer, especially as they find themselves tempted to follow in the footsteps of HTC and T-Mobile with the G2's "rom protection" feature or AT&T with the Aria which disallows "sideloading" of apps or Verizon and suspicions that they may one day do away with the Android Market. If you block, or attempt to block, the hacker community from working on your device you might just get what you wanted — and worse.

What made the Android platform a viable contender against the Apple juggernaut wasn't a superior platform. It wasn't better hardware. It wasn't a better market. What made Android competitive then and keeps Android competitve now is the openness. Take away Cyanogen; make it impossible to install the One-Click Lag Fix; block lean ROM images and what have you got? A good, but not great, interface on top of Apple's walled garden.

The walled garden sounds good if you're an executive. Who wouldn't want to sell a product that fetches premium prices, requires premium service and which can be locked down so the customer has to come to you for any and all software and updates. It's as good as a government-granted monopoly. Even better; it's a walled garden on a government-granted monopoly.

The Catch

But there's a catch. You move to the walled garden model and now you're playing Apple's game. Steve Jobs has come a long way since Macintosh. He's learned the lessons. And more importantly he and his team of whiz kids know how to make technology hip, easy to use and desirable. There isn't a utility on the face of this earth that's successfully marketed a product with even one of those selling points.

It's even worse for the Android device manufacturers. They're the ones who should be most worried. If the cell-phone companies want a hip, easy-to-use, desirable platform with a walled garden all they have to do is make nice with Apple. What does a hardware manufacturer do when they've gone up against and lost to the company with a lock on the platform of choice?

And the option to play nice isn't open to all of the cellphone companies. Apple are already on AT&T and rumours are they'll be on Verizon in Q1 of 2011. T-Mobile and Sprint could find themselves "stuck" with Android. Apple don't need either to have access to the vast majority of the US cellphone market. Once the iPhone is available on Verizon Apple could easily "focus" on their current markets and refuse to do business with either or both. Where does that leave T-Mobile and Sprint? In need of a product that's easily differentiable from the iPhone on the big two networks. Open, hackable Android could be that product.

The Lesson

There's obviously a market for open, configurable and yes, hackable devices. And there's huge upside to having a team of hackers and developers actively working to fix, improve and make those phones desirable in a different way. I suggest the carriers and manufacturers learn that lesson now before they build those walls too high.