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Google-Android Developers Rift Widens

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android-logo1Updated with comment from Google: A group of Android developers has splintered off and created its own community in the wake of last week’s dust-up between Google and Steve Kondik. The developer, who’s known as Cyanogen, drew the Internet giant’s attention by offering a free, after-market firmware product that bundled proprietary Google apps such as Gmail, Market, Talk and YouTube in a package dubbed CyanogenMod. Google filed a cease-and-desist order over the software last week, and Kondik responded in a blog post that the proprietary offerings will be dropped from CyanogenMod:

“These are not part of the open source project and are only part of “Google Experience” devices. They are Google’s intellectual property and I intend to respect that. I will no longer be distributing these applications as part of CyanogenMod. But it’s OK. None of the go-fast stuff that I do involves any of this stuff anyway. We need these applications though, because we all rely so heavily on their functionality. I’d love for Google to hand over the keys to the kingdom and let us all have it for free, but that’s not going to happen. And who can blame them?”

Kondik’s conciliatory post notwithstanding, Google’s legal maneuvering does seem to have taken the developer community by surprise. While licensing issues are commonplace when open source software is combined with proprietary offerings, platform vendors are often unwilling to risk upsetting developers by pursuing legal action. And the move seems to contradict Google’s public evangelizing of the importance of open source in mobile.

Google’s actions in relation to the open source community have given birth to the Open Android Alliance, which apparently does not claim Kondik as a member. Don’t confuse it with Google’s Open Handset Alliance, either. The newly formed group’s simple goal is stated on its home page:

“We aim to replace all closed source, proprietary applications in the base Android install with open source applications that can be freely distributed. We don’t have anything against the existing closed applications, however, we believe in open platforms and want all users to be able to modify their systems as they see fit.”

Conflicts with developers are nothing new in mobile, of course. Apple has drawn considerable flack for its seemingly arbitrary approval policies for App Store offerings, and Google was criticized for what some viewed as a closed development process before its commercial debut. But this could be a crucial moment for Android, which is still in its early days. Open source developers will look to create alternatives to Google’s proprietary offerings, competing with the very company that provides the platform. And discouraged mobile developers have a host of attractive platforms to build to, including the iPhone, Palm’s webOS and RIM’s BlackBerry.

The “de-Googlification of Android” isn’t unexpected, Alexander Muse of the Dallas-based publisher Big In Japan, which makes the popular ShopSavvy Android app, said via e-mail. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing:

“I suspect that Google will attempt to protect its (unregistered) trademark ‘Android’ and seek to prevent them from using the Android name in their project.  We don’t have time to mess around with turf wars like this….  If they drop the ball I see LOTS of need for efforts like this. At the end of the day this is a good thing for the hacker community (i.e. techie types) and for Google.  This doesn’t stop Google and their strategy – it actually helps it.”

Google’s desire to keep a tight hold on its proprietary apps, especially given the enormous potential mobile holds for such offerings, in understandable. And I think Muse could be right that it could benefit Google in the long run. But this tempest in a teapot is expanding by the day, and a misstep by Google could do massive damage to its developer relationships. Update: A Google spokesperson sent us the following statement:

The power of open source is that the community can shape it as they see fit. One thing we know for certain — innovation doesn’t come from a single source. Google supports and encourages developers to make Android better.

14 Responses to “Google-Android Developers Rift Widens”

  1. By way of update, it’s been brought to my attention that the commercial apps mentioned that caused the dust-up are not distributed as part of the Android source code. This makes Kondik’s position much more tenuous, as he was evidently bundling them in with his ROMs. This whole thing is a lot more dicey than on the surface.

    Google’s rep has definitely taken a black eye over this. There is no winner here as is usual in these cases. Just losers of different degrees.

  2. Chopchurch

    Isn’t it entirely possible that this is exactly what Google wants? They needed a more robust and diverse developer community, and nothing focuses Open Source zealots like a large “faceless enemy”. This move doesn’t hurt Google it actually helps them, that’s why I laughed out loud when I saw the group’s announcement. Remember Google couldn’t openly ask for this to happen, they couldn’t even suggest it.

  3. While I am TOTALLY sympathetic to Google on this one, perception has a way of becoming reality, and perception is that Google plays the open card when it serves their interests (namely, disrupting a proprietary, premium type of solution), the protector when it serves their interests (they need successful hardware OEMs to prove out the viability of their model) and proprietor when it serves their interests.

    Easy to see how the Android mantra of being open yet leveraged, fragments for them as self-interest takes precedence over the good of the commons.


  4. I suspect that Google has contracts with others involving the non-open source apps that dictate they can’t allow this sort of distribution. Often in these situations there are contractual liabilities that must be met. even if we all wish they wouldn’t do so.

  5. Evan Ruff

    I don’t understand what Google has to GAIN by limiting the exposure of Market and GMail/Cal/Contacts. I imagine there are even touchier IP issues with the Maps component, but Market and GMail feed users directly into Google’s pocket. While they don’t have to be Open Source, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be “freely distributable”.

  6. I totally respect the idea that one shouldn’t be spreading other IP all over the place for free, but G’s response to this was totally absurd. If it was that big of an issue they should have either brought it up from the start of the root rom community–instead of waiting almost a full year, or they should have created apps from the start that would be open sourced and could be pushed to dev created roms without fear of those bs lawyers.

    The dev community has done an incredible amount of work for G for free. We talk about our favorite platform to everyone, friends , family, etc, and get them interested in trying it out. Dev’s create apps and programs that they release for free on G’s market that create a tremendous buzz in the tech world.

    I think G would find that if they totally embraced the concept of rooting phones, and even encouraged it, they would find themselves in a market in which they would be the only company doing so. Can you imagine the amount of people that would flock to Android if all was rooted and free? It’s possible, but the color of money blinds all companies, good and bad, and terrible decisions are based off the bottom line.

    • HereAndNow

      I think Google did the right thing.

      I don’t think this is about Google’s apps, specifically. I think it is about Android IP, in general.

      For example, HTC invested a lot of time & money, developing the HTC Sense interface, to differentiate their Android devices from their competitors. This is HTC’s IP. Should ROMs, with this IP, be distributed & installed on devices not authorized by HTC? I think the answer is no.

      To me, this issue is simple: The pieces of Android that are free & open source are available for developers to change & distribute, however they want. The pieces that are not, are not.

    • I just boxed up my T-Mobile myTouch 3Gs and mailed them back. I was on my 15th day of the 20 day grace period. Just picked up a pair of iPhone 3GSs to replace them. Blows the “stock” Android ROM away by leaps and bounds.

      Had Google kept their open-source promise, it would have been safe to keep the phones despite their shortcomings, bugs and performance issues. We had Cyanogen to thank for making them work so well. Not going to wait around and see what happens when paying so much for a data plan.