Andy Rubin, leader of Google’s Android project, posted a rare essay Wednesday evening on the Android Developers Blog responding to a report that Google (NSDQ: GOOG) was taking a harder line with Android licensees on custom code changes and favoring certain partners over others. As might be expected, he disagreed with the characterization that Google’s famously “open” strategy might be closing a bit.
Last week Bloomberg Business Week reported that Android partners were starting to grumble about what they perceived as a tightening of Google’s stance on the consistency of their code and Google’s tendency to play favorites when picking launch partners for new Android versions, which gives the chosen vendors a potential advantage over their competitors. Given how strident Google and Rubin have been about describing Android as the “open” mobile operating system, as compared to Apple’s “closed” system, it was attacked for seeming to lose its religion even if such a change might not be a bad idea in the long run.
Rubin addressed the central theme of the report-that Google was cracking down on existing policies about compatibility and consistency-by reiterating that Google believes in an open approach and giving its partners the opportunity to put their own stamp on their products. “We don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ solution. … Our approach remains unchanged: there are no lock-downs or restrictions against customizing UIs. There are not, and never have been, any efforts to standardize the platform on any single chipset architecture.”
It’s easy to see how this issue can grow murky. Google has always preached the gospel of open, but it has also introduced products like the Nexus One and Nexus S and promoted them as “pure Google” experiences, implying there’s something less than pure about the Google experience that reaches store shelves having been filtered by Motorola (NYSE: MMI), Samsung, or Verizon. Many Android application developers would likely prefer that Google take a stronger line on Android fragmentation (which Google has long refused to admit is a problem), but handset makers and carriers don’t want to lose the ability differentiate their products among the competition, and Google needs all of them to keep Android growing.
Rubin also said that Google still plans to release an open-source version Honeycomb, the Android 3.0 software optimized for tablets. It delayed the release of that software after admitting it took a few “shortcuts” in order to get the version released with the Motorola Xoom ready on time, but the “temporary delay does not represent a change in strategy.”
In the end, Rubin’s essay isn’t likely to satisfy Google critics, although truth be told there’s likely little he can do to persuade people who aren’t necessarily open to being persuaded. For extremely practical reasons, Google has to impose some restrictions on Android partners to ensure the platform doesn’t spiral out of control. What restrictions are enforced, and how they are enforced, will remain a flash point for Android for a long time to come.
And despite the arrival of a new sheriff in Mountain View, it would appear Google is going to continue to sell Android as the “open” mobile operating system.