Google Should Drop Android’s “Open” Talk

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Google’s VP of engineering Andy Rubin hit back at a recent Businessweek article suggesting that the company was clamping down on the Android ecosystem and exerting much more control over the way carriers, manufacturers and developers use the mobile operating system. But in defending Android’s openness, Rubin seems to be setting the company up for additional questions regarding Android’s openness. That’s because while Rubin managed a solid defense of Android, he didn’t refute some of the recent claims about the operating system. And by not really owning up to Android’s issues or Google’s growing ambitions for Android, it allows people to continue to question the “open” mantra.

At this point, it seems like Google would be better served dropping or modifying its “open” stance, explaining that the present realities of fragmentation, of competition with other mobile ecosystems and for its own revenue considerations, the old concept of open is not as valid anymore. But that’s not likely to happen, so expect more sniping along the lines of the Businessweek article.

Let’s back up a little. In a blog post last night, Rubin said Google remains “committed to fostering the development of an open platform.” He said that Google still welcomes companies to modify the operating system and said they must just adhere to basic compatibility requirements. Google has not changed its approach to fragmentation, said Rubin and “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.” Finally, Rubin said Google is still committed to releasing updates when they’re ready and said that the decision to withhold Honeycomb from the open source community is not a change in strategy.

While Rubin didn’t mention the Businessweek story by name, the blog post was clearly aimed at that piece, which said that Google was clamping down on tweaks to the operating system and will review the plans of partners before they can get early access to the operating system. The story also said Google has been recently stepping up enforcement of Android’s “non-fragmentation clauses,” which allow Google to approve new interfaces and features and in some cases partnerships. Businessweek also said Google has tried to delay the release of Verizon Android devices that rely on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Rubin seems also motivated by questions about Google’s decision to delay the release of Android 3.0 Honeycomb.

Rubin reiterates that Android is open for partners but to get early access, the prize now for manufacturers jockeying in the growing tablet and smartphone markets, they need to submit to Google’s more stringent demands. That’s something Rubin didn’t refute. He did say Honeycomb will be released to the open source community for both tablets and phones as soon as its ready but he didn’t address the claim that Google is attempting to hold up the release of phones running a rival search engine. And while he said the anti-fragmentation plan has been in place since the beginning, he didn’t address the reported tightened enforcement lately.

What this is all does is show that Google is very much wedded to the idea of calling Android an open project. They love the way that sounds. And they’d likely face some embarrassment if they abandoned that. But the reality is that the open feel that Android began with is slowly being whittled away and not without good reason. On the fragmentation front, it’s a major concern of developers. A recent report from Robert W. Baird & Co. found that 55 percent of Android developers find OS fragmentation to be a meaningful or huge problem. It makes sense for Google to assert more control to combat that. To keep the ecosystem attractive for developers and ultimately free of larger fragmentation issues that affect customers, Google probably should exert more authority. But various measures in pursuing that such as dangling early access and leaving other manufacturers behind, can undercut the open rhetoric of Google.

But it’s not just fragmentation that Google is battling. It has a huge success on its hands with Android, but it’s competing directly against other polished ecosystems like Apple. That means it’s in Google’s interest to standardize the platform and clean up the user interface so it looks better compared to iOS, Windows Phone 7 and whatever comes along. This, too, could be considered a reasonable explanation for clamping down though it’s clear that even without a standard look and feel, the platform has flourished.

But Google I think also sees Android as a significant revenue source. It’s increasingly showing that it wants to drive the Android platform and the money that it produces. We’ve talked about the legal battle with location provider Skyhook, a former Google partner who is now suing Google for pressuring manufacturing partners to drop the service in favor of Google’s location technology. The fight underscores the money to be made by monetizing location data. Google has also tightened its enforcement of Android Market’s non-compete rules for apps that can serve as potential rival app stores. It’s a sign that Google is less willing to deal with competition especially when money is at stake.

With Android’s success in the marketplace — it leads all mobile operating systems in the U.S. –Google also has more leverage over carrier and manufacturing partners, who are increasingly reliant on Android for success. That allows Google to flex its muscles with less worry of repercussions, though a regulatory investigation could arise.

Now, I think the main problem here is that Google continues to push the “open” aspects of Android, which it originally used to contrast with Apple’s more closed approach. But in pushing this narrative, it really sets up Google for attacks from people trying to emphasize some kind of hypocrisy by Google. I think that won’t change especially as Google asserts more control over the platform. But the company could quiet some of these attacks by just acknowledging or clarifying that Android isn’t as open as it once was. It’s still an open source project but not the same one pitched three years ago. I really doubt Google will do that. But by insisting that Android is as open as ever, it’s just inviting more criticism.

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