Blog Post

Google Should Drop Android’s “Open” Talk

Google’s VP (s goog) 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 (s vz) Android devices that rely on Microsoft’s (s msft) 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 (s aapl). 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.

10 Responses to “Google Should Drop Android’s “Open” Talk”

  1. astralexis

    Hmm… to keep it open has one advantage: it ensures that hardware makers will continue to make hardware for the platform.

    Google can leverage Android by selling Google Apps services for Android or Chrome OS clients. Control and intimate knowledge of the client OS allows for the design and implementation of sophisticated multi tier client server architectures.

  2. Proprietary Android

    Google isn’t doing anything different with Android. It’s still being open sourced once they feel a version is “finished” with the exception of Honeycomb because it needs to be integrated back into Android instead of as a stand alone tablet OS.

    Nothing new there. . . though they may be cracking down on software implementations that don’t follow the guidelines a little more than they have in the past–let’s hope so at least.

    The “closed” nature of Android is the OEMs’ implementations of Android. Google is giving the OEMs far too much “openness” to do with Android as they please and the end result is a “proprietary version of Android” that is as locked down as any iOS device.

    Once Moto, Samsung, and HTC add their customizations to Android they lock up the device and threaten the user by voiding the warranty if you root the device. This is EXACTLY what Apple does.

    Therefore, the end user is locked into Moto-android-blur, Samsung-android-touchwiz, HTC-android-sense, etc. . . and they are each just as locked down as can be. None of these OEMs can claim even the slightest bit of “openness” when it concerns their implementation of Android.

    And Google does NOTHING to give the end user choice. They don’t force the OEMs’ to allow users a stock version of Android option. . . they do nothing whatsoever to stop this lock in by OEMs thus resulting in lack of choice and freedom to customize your device = Apple iOS devices.

    Dear Google,

    Please make every OHA member create an optimized stock Android version for each device they release.

    Then allow users to switch to this optimized stock Android version in place of the OEM’s proprietary version of Android via the market without voiding the warranty of the device, and then maintain updates for it so users will get updates and upgrades via Google asap.

    Please give the end user some freakin choice & freedom instead of letting the OEMs do whatever the hell they want and locking users into their proprietary versions of Android which amounts to being the same as an iOS device.

    I would really like to have a choice when it comes to Android but I don’t. The only real Android device is the Nexus. All other devices claiming to be Android are not, they are proprietary implementations of Android and locked down just as tight as Apple’s iOS–flashing a ROM = voiding the warranty just like iOS devices.

    Google, why don’t you give a shit about the end users? Do you only care about OEMs?

    Please give the end user some choice instead of giving all the “openness” to the OEMs so they can lock Android down.

    Or I’ll just be getting WebOS or an MS device next.

    Yours truly,

    An Android user that would like a little FREAKIN CHOICE & FREEDOM!

  3. Point of clarity: the Android OS License is “open”, meaning developers and device manufacturers can use the software for their own commercial pursuits, subject to the terms and limitations set forth by the Android license. In contrast, Apple does not permit the licensed-use of iOS. Only Apple can manufacture a mobile device with iOS. No other company can license iOS for commercial reasons or otherwise. Open – everyone can license it; Closed – no one can license it.

  4. I’m pretty shocked at how much authority pundits are giving the BusinessWeek article that started this debate, even from people who are taking Goggle’s side in this alleged “policy change”. Basically the article (a) asserts that Google hadn’t committed the Honeycomb source yet, (b) cites unnamed sources claiming that Honeycomb will never be open sourced, (c) quotes a predictably critical remark from a rival (Stephen Elop), (d) posits an escalation of anti-fragmentation clause policies which has never been proven (Google has always reserved the right to give gapps, the Market, and the “Powered by Google” endorsement at their discretion), and (e) taken a quote by Rubin explaining why the code hasn’t been released yet and placed that quote after the unnamed sources claiming that it wouldn’t be released in the foreseeable future — insinuating that Rubin was answering the latter allegation.

    Meanwhile, until yesterday’s statement that nothing had changed, neither Rubin nor any other Google representative had published at statement on any change in policy. That didn’t stop an AndroidCentral podcaster from claiming that the AOSP site listed Honeycomb disingenuously on its Platform Overview page (in fact, the source listings stop at 2.3; 3.0 is nowhere to be found there); nor did it stop an Engadget podcaster from citing a nonexisted announcement on the same site (even though she claimed that the “change” was a good thing).

    This is a bloggosphere fail, not Google’s.

  5. Relwal

    The assertion that it’s not possible to develop a smartphone or tablet without Google’s approval and that therefor Android is not “open” is unfounded.

    Here are just some of the projects and products that have been created without Google’s or the OHA’s help because Android is released as open source:
    – Tapas smartphone platform
    – OMS smartphone platform
    – Barnes & Noble’s Nook tablet
    – Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color tablet
    – Cyanogen Mod alternative Android firmware versions
    – Archos tablets
    – Amazon’s Android Appstore
    – RIM’s Playbook Android compatibility

    As for the Skyhook lawsuit being proof that Android is not open, the judge apparently believed there was far more to the story than Skyhook’s version of events when she denied Skyhook’s motion for preliminary injunction.

  6. I usually like Ryan’s articles, but sorry to say this article is just more FUD. The author claims that Android is less open now than it was in the beginning. How? The author implies that in the beginning, Google did not have a stringent set of requirements to share a new version of Android with phone manufacturers before the version was ready for general release. This is simply not true. Google has always been selective in sharing pre-release Android OS with other partners. Once the new version is ready for general release, Google has not prevented anybody from modifying the OS as they want. Android has never been a classic open source project where all the code under development is open to the whole world throughout the development lifecycle. Android has always been a project that is shared with the general public only when it reaches a certain stable build in each version. All these things are true today as they were in the beginning. So, how is Android less open?

    The only thing that is different today that there are more people who are knocking on Google’s doors to get access to the pre-release version of the latest Android builds. Remember how in the beginning, other than HTC, everybody else wanted to take a wait and watch approach to see how Android would turn out? It is the exact opposite today – everybody, both manufacturers and individual developers, want to get access to new versions as early as possible. They see having access to the latest Android version as a competitive advantage. Meanwhile, Google is continuing its original practice of working with only selected partners on pre-release builds. If Google did not do this, do you know how much of a headache it would be dealing with all the partners who are trying to work with an OS version that is still under development? And what about the tech press that would gleefully write how the latest version of Android is a mess? Gigaom would be one of the first publications to do that.

    So, I repeat my question, how is Android less open today than it was in the past? All the people who are making this bogus claim should simply shut up until the day when Google will refuse to share the code or prevent modifications to a stable release of Android. If Google ever does that, then I will listen to the claims of Android being less open.

  7. “With Android’s success in the marketplace — it leads all mobile operating systems in the U.S.”

    Smartphone OS but not mobile OS – iOS is on iPod Touches and iPads

    Google seems to use the term “open” purely for marketing and their definition has and will change for what “open” means to them. An average consumer doesn’t know or care what “open” means. It’s the carrier and user experience that matters. So Google has to eat some crow for using “open” but it shouldn’t hurt them.

    I think it’s a good thing they’re tightening control over the platform some.

    They’re staying competitive.