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Google Reacts to Recent Openness Criticism

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Andy Rubin, VP of Engineering at Google and head of Android group, has addressed the latest comments in the media regarding Google’s dedication to openness and policy around Android, remarking that Google wants both an open and healthy ecosystem for their mobile OS.

BusinessWeek announced last month that Google decided to hold the source code of the latest Android version, Honeycomb, from being publicly released until further notice, a move that was considered by some as a departure from the open source spirit that has characterized Google and Android so far. This decision does not affect major Android device manufacturers because “HTC, Samsung Electronics, Motorola Mobility Holdings, and other big manufacturers already have access to Honeycomb,” but it affects the “throngs of smaller hardware makers and software developers that will now have to wait for the software” for several months. This has upset some open source advocates who consider that the Android code should be available at all times in the true spirit of openness.

BusinessWeek continued a week later by drawing attention to the fact that Google has tighten up their policy regarding Android, “demanding that Android licensees abide by "non-fragmentation clauses" that give Google the final say on how they can tweak the Android code—to make new interfaces and add services—and in some cases whom they can partner with,” offering Facebook and Verizon as examples:

Facebook, for example, has been working to fashion its own variant of Android for smartphones. Executives at the social network are unhappy that Google gets to review Facebook's tweaks to Android, say two people who weren't comfortable being named talking about the business. Google has also tried to hold up the release of Verizon (VZ) Android devices that make use of Microsoft's (MSFT) rival Bing search engine, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

BusinessWeek even quoted Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO, saying that “the premise of a true open software platform may be where Android started, but it's not where Android is going,” a strong statement that needs to be taken with a grain of salt since it comes from one of Google’s direct rivals. BusinessWeek’s conclusion was “The bottom line: Despite grumblings, Google's Android mobile operating system is still open—it's just getting more heavily policed.”

Andy Rubin, VP of Engineering at Google and head of Android group, has recently made an attempt to clear things up “in the spirit of transparency and in an attempt to set the record straight” because “there’s been a lot of misinformation in the press about Android and Google’s role in supporting the ecosystem”, as he considers.

The first concern Rubin mentions is that “quality and consistency” need to remain “top priorities”. That is a hint to the fact that some Android devices that came onto the market have been subpar compared to Apple’s devices, and some reports indicated even mediocre devices that may create a very negative perception among consumers regarding Google’ mobile OS.

Rubin reiterates Google’s position on letting device makers to modify and customize Android as they wish, but they need to “conform with some basic compatibility requirements” if they want to market those products as “Android-compatible” or to “include Google applications on the device”. Rubin emphasizes that Android compatibility requirements have existed from the beginning, their purpose being to avoid the platform’s fragmentation and “all of the founding members of the Open Handset Alliance agreed not to fragment Android when we first announced it in 2007.” He tries to reassure device makers and developers that

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.

Earlier BusinessWeek quoted Rubin on the delay of releasing Honeycomb source code:

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.

Rubin reiterates that Google will make Honeycomb code available when it is fit for smartphones:

Finally, we continue to be an open source platform and will continue releasing source code when it is ready. As I write this the Android team is still hard at work to bring all the new Honeycomb features to phones. As soon as this work is completed, we’ll publish the code. This temporary delay does not represent a change in strategy. We remain firmly committed to providing Android as an open source platform across many device types.

Google’s problem is clearly the struggle to maintain an ecosystem that is open and healthy in the same time. While Android started with openness, later developments lead to a fragmented implementation and perception of Android devices, which is clearly not good for its future. But to create the healthy ecosystem they want, Google seems to be enforcing the compatibility rules tighter and to make the early source code available only to major device manufacturers, leaving the smaller makers and the general public a few months behind. This will upset open source purists, but will probably bring better quality and consistency to Android devices.

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