Stop Press. Android Isn’t Truly Open. What’s New?

I see the media’s infatuation with Android shows no sign of abating, with a Businessweek article titled “Do Not Anger the Alpha Android” gaining particular attention recently. The article’s a well-researched piece that makes some interesting observations. What’s intriguing is the way it’s being presented by others as evidence of Android’s dramatic transition from an open source laissez-faire commune to a tyrannical dictatorship.

The extra attention has even prompted Andy Rubin, Google’s VP of engineering, to respond in a blog posting that things aren’t always as they seem.

The Businessweek article states that Google is clamping down on alterations to Android code releases, which means manufacturers must submit any changes for approval by Google. However, this is already part of “anti-fragmentation” clauses signed by many phone-makers. Given that Android is published under the Apache license, manufacturers don’t have to sign such contracts. But in reality, if they want to be part of the inner circle and see code before it’s publicly available, they have little choice but adhere to Google’s rules.

The same goes for Google services. Android itself may be open source, but services such as Gmail and Google Maps are strictly proprietary. If a device manufacturer wants access (which most do), they have to abide by the associated terms and conditions.

This has been the case since day one. Google may be enforcing anti-fragmentation clauses more strictly now, but this is not a fundamental change to its Android philosophy. Google adopted an open-source model to promote rapid innovation and achieve widespread adoption. But within that it has introduced mechanisms to try and maintain ownership, consistency and control the risk of fragmentation. These measures are both direct (such as early access and anti fragmentation clauses) as well as indirect (for example, the speed of code releases).

As more and more Android devices are made, Google faces mounting challenges in making sure users have a favourable impression of the platform. The decision to delay distribution of the source code for Honeycomb is a clear example of Google grappling to keep the Android experience consistent. If it distributed the code today, it would have no way of stopping manufacturers from implementing a platform designed for tablets on smaller device with more constrained resources, and so giving users a poor experience. This is what happened when manufacturers began using the Froyo release of Android — which is designed for phones — on tablets.

This underlines the real point here. Open source and open governance are not the same thing. From Google’s perspective Android is a commercial product that just happens to be open source. The source code may be freely available, but Google has never pretended that anyone other than it will decide on the road map, release schedule, fragmentation clauses, service licensing terms… the list goes on.

This doesn’t mean it hasn’t created a big headache for partners. The reason we’re seeing media reports painting Google as a villain is not because its stance has changed. The industry has simply become overwhelmingly reliant on Android. And at present there is little alternative.