Here’s Why Google Is Holding Honeycomb Back


Google’s Honeycomb version of Android may have left the hive for a few tablets, but don’t expect to see any new ones announced in the near future: The company has decided not to release the platform’s source code to the community just yet. Tablet makers such as Motorola, Samsung, LG and others have had early access to use Honeycomb, but only through prior agreements with Google as hardware partners. According to BusinessWeek, smaller tablet makers, the open-source community, and even handset builders that were considering the use of Honeycomb for other new products will now have to wait longer to use Google’s software.

My first thought stems from my initial impressions of Motorola’s Xoom tablet, which runs Honeycomb. Last month, I pointed out Honeycomb felt rushed to market, citing a few examples of why: application instability and non-supported hardware features, such as use the of microSD memory expansion slot. Why the rush? iPad 2 was the answer that came to mind:

So if I’m correct, and Honeycomb and the first tablets that run it are getting rushed to market, the obvious reason it’s happening is to compete with Apple’s iPad, which sold 14.75 million units in 2010. And with Apple’s press event next week, which is expected to shed light on the next iPad and possibly new software features for iOS, I can understand the need for speed. However, some of the issues caused by cutting a few corners to launch devices could end up hurting more than helping, at least in the short term.

That was my thought exactly one month ago today, and now BusinessWeek has a quote from Andy Rubin, the head of Google’s Android group, that confirms my suspicions about the rush job:

To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs. We didn’t want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut.

This news isn’t going to stop Motorola from shipping Xoom tablets, nor does it mean competing products from top-tier vendors will be delayed. Instead, since the platform isn’t getting released to the open-source community, programmers who want to create their own Honeycomb build for existing products will have to wait. As will any second- or third-tier hardware vendor that had hoped to make their own mobile device running on Honeycomb.

While I expect the open-source community to come down hard on Google for this decision, I can see why the company is taking this step. One simply has to look to the earlier days of Android to see what Google is trying to defend against. Practically anyone or any company with enough technical prowess could build an Android device. That’s ultimately a good thing, as it brings choice, but it also allows for a “wild west” scenario in the world of Android.

For example, some hardware manufacturers, such as Archos, built Android tablets in 2009, when Android was geared towards smartphones. By jumping the gun, these devices delivered poor customer experiences and often had no access to Google’s own apps nor the Android Market for other apps. What do customers blame for the poor experience? Google and its Android platform (as well as the hardware vendor), and Google can’t afford such perception if it wants to keep hardware partners interested and attract developers to its new tablet platform.

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