Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Google Android 3.0 "Honeycomb": Open source no more


In a disappointing move, Google has restricted access to the tablet-oriented version of Android, also known as Honeycomb. Version 3.0 of Android, which many have called a fork of the mobile OS (and now it looks like they were right), is now closed source, with access only going to OEMs and specific developers. While Google claims that they don’t want people experimenting with the OS on smartphones for which it wasn’t designed, one has to wonder if there aren’t other motivations for the move.
According to BusinessWeek,
…throngs of smaller hardware makers and software developers that will now have to wait for the software. The delay will probably be several months. “To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs,” says Andy Rubin, vice-president for engineering at Google and head of its Android group. “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.”
A shortcut that certainly goes to the heart of whether Android truly is “open source.” In fact, it goes right to the heart of whether Android’s “openness” is a competitive advantage any longer when independent developers can’t get at the source code for Honeycomb and design the next great thing in the tablet space. I wouldn’t have to work too hard to argue that tablets are actually quite a bit more interesting in terms of potential use cases than phones, but those interesting use cases will require specialized software and interfaces. No open source, no brilliant new medical device, no drastically improved e-reader, no new approach to the legal pad, no whatever that requires developers to take a deeper dive than merely creating an App.
Android is frequently compared to Microsoft Windows when PC clones took off and hardware simply became a commodity. Google prefers to call Android the Linux of mobile operating systems. Unfortunately, that’s hardly a title they can claim when they close source code at their convenience.
Google claims they wanted to avoid having developers create a bad user experience. How about a caveat along the lines of, “Hey, we know this is open source, so whatever you can do to get the cool UI enhancements and great features working on phones woud be much appreciated. We don’t recommend hanging your hats on it as a smartphone platform, but that’s just us.” It would probably offend open source sensibilities far less than closing the code when it makes good business sense for Google and its OEM partners.
I’m a big Android fan. I’m even a Mac user and I still dig Android. But, aside from its awesome integration with the Google tools I use all the time, I dig it on principle. If I ever find a reason to get a tablet, it’ll be an Android tablet. Those principles of openness are what keep me from even giving a sideways glance at Verizon iPhones or the very slick iPad 2. But if those principles go away, I might as well fully buy into the Mac ecosystem. Or, perish the thought, jump on the WebOS bandwagon (tiny little bandwagon that it is).