With Android, Google Both Embraces and Eschews Openness

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 25, 2011

Back in January, our post "Does Android Have a Forked Future?" we explored the fact that Google seemed poised to explore several different paths with its Android mobile OS. Specifically, we noted that with Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), Google seemed to be aiming targeted features at tablet developers, while other versions of Android would be more appropriate for smartphones and other devices. Of course, if Android is forked in several directions, it raises issues about fragmentation of the platform, and, now, it is becoming clear that Google's multi-pronged Android strategy also raises questions about openness.

Specifically, BusinessWeek is reporting that Google will delay distribution of its Honeycomb source code to outside developers, keeping it available to only select developers.

According to BusinessWeek:

"The search giant says the software, which is tailored specifically for tablet computers that compete against Apple's iPad, is not yet ready to be altered by outside programmers and customized for other devices, such as phones."

Part of the reason that Android is such a barnstorming success as a mobile OS is that Google has faithfully open sourced its code for developers at large, and the company maintains that it will continue with an open source strategy, but the writing is on the wall when it comes to Honeycomb: development is invitation-only at least for now.

The Register questioned Google officials about this move, and got this answer:

"Android 3.0, Honeycomb, was designed from the ground up for devices with larger screen sizes and improves on Android favorites such as widgets, multi-tasking, browsing, notifications and customization. While we’re excited to offer these new features to Android tablets, we have more work to do before we can deliver them to other device types including phones. Until then, we’ve decided not to release Honeycomb to open source."

This will undoubtedly enrage some companies, developers and open source purists, but are the objections necessarily warranted? Many commercial open source companies have pursued have offered open source code for applications and platforms while still tailoring premium and specialized editions for certain users and markets. It is part of the nature of open source platforms that they metamorphosize into different version, and arrive in forks.

The Register suggests: "The reality is surely that Google and its partners don't want smaller name manufacturers eating into their tablet sales." That may be true, and Google has to be careful as it appears to play favorites with select versions of Android, but it's wrong to write the company's Android strategy off because of all of this. Surely, Google has been as surprised as anyone by how hugely an open strategy with Android has paid off. In 2008, Android was barely a blip on the mobile OS scene. Also surely, the company has considered whether a partially open strategy with the OS will work, and has decided that it will. Is that so bad?