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Summary:

As Android evolves into a dominant mobile platform, it’s forcing Google (NSDQ: GOOG) to confront some hard truths about how it works with pa…

Google I O 2010 Gundotra Android

As Android evolves into a dominant mobile platform, it’s forcing Google (NSDQ: GOOG) to confront some hard truths about how it works with partners, the perils of moral grandstanding and what exactly it means to be open.

For years Google has been pitching Android as the yin to Apple’s iOS yang, in that Android is “open” software free from the types of “closed” restrictions that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) places on iOS development. In the press release announcing Android, Google and the members of the Open Handset Alliance wrote “Handset manufacturers and wireless operators will be free to customize Android in order to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost.” And in a much-publicized quote at the Google I/O conference in 2010, Google’s Vic Gundotra recalled a conversation with Android head Andy Rubin in which Rubin said Android was created because “if Google did not act, we faced a Draconian future. A future where one man, one company, one device, and one carrier would be our only choice.” Referring, of course, to Steve Jobs, Apple and the iPhone.

There’s no doubt the strategy is working: Android now runs on 33 percent of smartphones in the U.S., according to Comscore, up 7 percent from last November and well ahead of Research in Motion’s declining market share and Apple’s steady iOS share. But that success has come with growing pains, and recent moves by Google to address some of those pains shows just how counterproductive it can be to declare one’s company the moral authority among competing businesses.

Picking up the pieces: Easily the biggest complaint about Android in its first years on the planet has been fragmentation. Google releases new Android versions at dizzying speeds, and not all of its handset partners are able or willing to move at the same speed. That results in a large number of different Android versions out in the wild at any given time, which can frustrate developers whose applications won’t work perfectly on all of those versions, especially when coupled with the differences in hardware produced by various Android partners.

Google is now addressing some of those concerns. A Bloomberg Business Week article this week revealed that Google is “tightening” policies regarding “non-fragmentation clauses” in Android licenses, demanding the right to review custom code changes to Android in hopes of preventing issues and giving those willing to follow its guidelines early access to new versions of the software.

The reaction was swift: Partners had embraced Android because it promised to allow them to create differentiated handsets instead of repeating the history of the PC market, in which PC makers were almost completely beholden to Intel (NSDQ: INTC) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) for innovation and wound up competing on price and logistics: hardly a sexy business model. And now that Google was restricting their ability to carve their own path, they lashed out, grumbling to the media about the situation and even going so far as to complain to the Justice Department, according to Bloomberg Business Week’s article.

In some ways, it’s a bit laughable. Google attempts to solve one of the biggest problems with Android by taking a little responsibility for the excesses of its partners, and a bunch of companies that are not exactly known for software–like LG (SEO: 066570), Toshiba, and Samsung–complain about their inability to add what many believe is the second-biggest problem with Android: the crapware-style applications and user interfaces that some companies impose on otherwise excellent Android handsets in the name of differentiation.

And the reaction from Apple supporters was predictable. John Gruber, probably the most consistently eloquent of the bunch, went off the deep end when he wrote “Andy Rubin, Vic Gundotra, Eric Schmidt: shameless, lying hypocrites, all of them.” But the sentiment is understandable. Google has been looking down its nose at Apple for quite some time with its “open” Android strategy, and any sign that Google was closing the window, even just a little, was ripe for criticism.

No good deed: The most amazing thing, however, is that Google is doing the right thing. This is exactly what Google should be doing to make Android a better product for users and application developers, ensuring that applications will run better across Android phones and that consumers are protected from the worst offenders of user-interface bloat.

Google faced a dilemma when the Android program began: too much control over the software would alienate the partners it needed to make hardware and promote Android phones, and too little control and Android would turn into 15 different operating systems. It opted to court partners, and the result is an astounding growth story that in giving the world two strong, innovative mobile platforms is making the mobile market a better place to do business. Now that Android is established, it seems a bit self-serving to criticize Google for trying to make improvements that both Android supporters and detractors would agree are needed.

The problem is that Google has always seen itself as a moral force in the world, and has tried very hard to present that image to the public. In deciding to sell Android by so emphatically portraying itself as the righteous alternative to Apple’s dark desire for control and profits (Gundotra even used a slide referencing Orwell’s 1984 when he delivered the above quote), it created an impossible situation in which anything perceived as a blight on its record results in more of a backlash. Just look at the long line of moralizing politicians who have been caught cheating on their wives; those who don’t practice what they preach often fall harder.

Google has a complicated relationship with the word “open,” to be sure, often criticized for only being truly open when it suits its purposes. In this case, Android is still an extremely open alternative for anyone considering building a mobile phone even with the crackdown on code reviews, and might actually wind up a better product as a result of Google’s decision to assert more control.

But when you sell a product on the purity of your ideology, anything seen as a compromise is a problem. Potential Android partners are going to look at Google a little differently from now on.

See where Google ranks on our latest list, The paidContent 50: The Most Successful Digital Media Companies In The U.S.

  1. I stopped reading when I saw…

    “John Gruber, probably the most consistently eloquent of the bunch”

    Gruber is a pathetic little homunculus, doubtless unable (or unwilling) to get past his utter humiliation at the hands of some ‘cool’ kids, in high school. Anyone who finds such a self-aggrandizing troll ‘eloquent’ – much less, worth reading – is obviously a horse’s patoot.

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    1. NOT RahmEmanuel: You don’t think that the line on John Gruber was intensly ironic?

      Very good post Tom, detailing the contradictions of this industry.

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      1. “You don’t think that the line on John Gruber was intensly ironic?”

        ‘Intensly’ [sic]? Sorry, but no. Too subtle for my unsophisticated palate, I guess.

        Still, I’m inclined to think that anybody who found the original blurb blatantly ironic is either (a) a regular to this column, (b) a regular to Gruber’s, or (c) the urbane sort who can spot a real knee-slapper on every page of the Utne Reader.

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  2. Google android platform is an open os, but then the teleco’s and oem’s lock android so the end user has to suffer whatever crap or restrictions the teleco’s or oem’s put on it.

    I believe that Google could license its software in such a way so that the teleco’s and oem’s would also have to give their customers an open os. This way they can put whatever bloatware or restrictions they want but the end user would have the freedom to install a friendlier version of the os.

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  3. Are there options aside from Android? I bet there’s none. Google is not closing the window, they are just managing the way they share Android to the world. I think that Google’s decision to “open” Android OS to mobile manufacturers is still the best choice up to this point.

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    1. justmeherenow Saturday, April 2, 2011

      I don’t consider iOS an option anymore. And many will follow.

      Pocket Legends proves a point, it is more economically successful on Android than it is on iOS. Market share is everything. Android has it, Apple doesn’t.

      More and more, other developers will know what some of us know as a fact now. Adopt the model and you will be successful.

      Android has multiple distribution channels, Android Market, Amazon, and others, where you can chose how much you share and don’t have to wait for a toss up like Apple’s market. To me iOS is waste of time. Good return now, that will fizzle in oblivion overtime, and you have to forgo 30% of your profits. 5-10% I could deal with 30%, there is no chance Ill share my cut with Apple.

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  4. Samsung phones look like iPhones. Wouldn’t have thought they want differentiation. Some of their customized UI are uglier than pure andriod. Delayed updates because of a ugly skinning is unforgivable. They need to do better before lashing out. And put more thoughts into design, why are they all black and round edges? There’s a lot of room for differentiation in the design department, and isn’t that supposed to be OEM’s strength? instead of software?

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  5. Google’s problem, and what Gruber and other’s are reacting against (whether you like Gruber or not), is that they continue to try being two opposing things at once.

    They want to be the “Good Guys” who are selflessly pushing for freedom and openness with no strings attached while at the same time they are a company which makes billions of dollars and they want to continue doing so into the future. The mobile market is huge and continually getting bigger and it’s going to be a big part of any tech company’s future. Android is a big part of Google’s play. What Google is doing is good for Android. The fragmentation and goofy delayed updates for pretty much every existing device are bad for the platform. But fixing that requires taking some control and openness away. If Google hadn’t been so publicly derisive towards Apple (who unashamedly acts in their own best interests like any for profit company is going to do) while presenting themselves as somehow different there wouldn’t be this knee jerk reaction.

    To be upfront. I’m an Apple user through and through, but I do want to see Android succeed as well. Android’s success is going to mean Apple will be forced to make changes in their behavior that I don’t like. You can look at Apple’s own changes in how they treat their iOS developers to see that competition is good. In general their behavior towards iOS developers has been getting better and better (despite the occasional misstep). I’m looking forward to Google taking back a little control of the Android platform. I’m just sorry that they had to be so self righteous about how they’d never do such a thing leading up to it.

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  6. Good piece. I totally agree that Google set themselves up for a fall by playing the “pure” card. There IS something kinda satisfying about seeing the holier-than-thou politician or TV evangelist get caught (literally!) with their pants down. All the “open-ists” who parrot the “I won’t buy anything Apple because they’re walled and draconian and Steve Jobs wants control my life…..blah, blah, blah” have to be hurting a bit now that Google’s feet-of-clay have been exposed. It will be interesting to see how this whole “open” Android thing plays out in the future.

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  7. Total rubbish…Google rushed Honeycomb to market. The short-cuts that they took prevented them from offering Honeycomb on phones. That is why their locking it down. It isn’t principles its getting it to market BEFORE iOS.

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    1. Totally agree with you. There was so much possibilities and promise and yet they allowed Apple to once again restrain them from developing a perfect product due to fear of competition.

      Apple’s ability to impress is because they make sure its right before releasing it not because they released it first. Competitors fail because of this.

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    2. That was one of the stories this week involving adroind.

      The second story this week, and what this is what artical is specific about is that Google have activated a clause in the contract which means that to use Android branding and the closed parts of Android you need to get Google permission.

      I saw no problem in Google delaying the for Honeycomb for a couple of months why they clean up the code and fully bake there ideas to enable the interface to fit any screen.
      In fact I suspect Honeycomb will be the version which is design to operate across TV, Tablets and Phones.
      I also suspect that a other reason they may have delayed was to stop the leaking of services like Google Music before they are officially release.

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  8. In response to Steve Jobs last fall, Andy Rubin tweeted the following about Android

    “the definition of open: mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git://android.git.kernel.org/platform/manifest.git ; repo sync ; make”

    By his own definition, Honeycomb is NOT open. He is hypocrite. Only fanatic fanboys can’t see it.

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    1. It not open YET. Google said it will be in the future, probably the next 3 months or so. Android development versions have never been open to the public and nothing have change.

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  9. anyone with an android phone will agree that this is awesome. i dont think samsung and motorola should be mess with android at all, they ruin it everytime. the stock google experience phones are the ones that every loves and raves about.

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  10. Google is doing the right thing for consumers. If you want be the good guys by releasing an open OS and companies are using it for bad intentions toward consumers, isn’t it your duty than to try to minimize that? Shouldn’t the point of Android be to allow companies to get well designed compatible devices out to market quicker and cheaper by not having to reinvent the wheel over and over? I really don’t see why consumers would complain about this. And I don’t feel sorry for hardware vendors being held accountable for the customizations they want to make. Some of the crap they do is just horrible and bad design. And Honeycomb will get released when it’s ready. So get over it.

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