Google’s recent announcement that Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” will remain closed to outside developers isn’t sitting well with open source proponents. The stark reality, however, is that Android’s growth has little to do with the question of open code.
The Android bait and switch?
While Honeycomb code will be available to developers at partner organizations, smaller shops will not be given access to the tablet-optimized version of Android for the foreseeble future. Andy Rubin, vice president of Android engineering at Google, explained in a recent Bloomberg Business Week interview the trade-off that led to the decision. “We didn’t want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones,” Rubin explains.
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Keeping the source code for Honeycomb private is one way Google plans to prevent developers from trying to run Honeycomb on smartphones, a scenario that Google didn’t plan or test for prior to shipping the OS.
Although Android is often referred to as an open source mobile platform, the development approach is far from open. Google develops Android behind closed doors and makes the source code available when and, as it now appears, if Google feels it is appropriate.
Not surprisingly, some open source developers are taking an exception to the Honeycomb news, including Linux developer Adam Drews:
In hindsight Android was a bit of a bait and switch with a dash of divide and conquer. Most of the open source folks are fine with Android being closed up so long as it is opened up later and that means that we lose a large portion of the potential community to Android. This has translated to lower participation in projects likeMeeGo and little demand on manufacturers to provide devices that we can easily install other operating systems on. If Android were fully closed we’d have a large base of support waiting to come over to freer pastures but with Android existing in this quasi-open state enough of the open source crowd will stick with it to make it hard for critical mass to grow behind projects like MeeGo.
The relative importance of openness
RedMonk’s Stephen O’Grady tackles the question of whether it matters if Android is open or not:
But while developers are unquestionably and understandably disappointed, there is little evidence to suggest that a less than open Android will have a material cost in developer traction associated with it. Apple’s iOS, a platform that is not open source, has immense developer traction with more than 350,000 applications available at the moment.
Based on market share of mobile devices shipped or number of applications for a particular mobile platform, it’s abundantly clear that mobile operating system success has little to do with openness. In fact, O’Grady concludes that while Google may have felt that openness would turn out to be a differentiator in the market, that hypothesis simply hasn’t been proven out.
If openness isn’t driving Android’s growth, then what is? Benchmark Capital general partner Bill Gurley’s great post titled “The freight train that is Android” provides some clues.
Gurley argues that Google is attempting to “take any layer that lives between themselves and the consumer and make it free (or even less than free).” This is incredibly important to handset vendors and carriers who have an incentive to use and promote Android over alternatives. The fact that Google shares mobile search revenue with its handset partners makes Android not just free, but a profit center, which is hard for a vendor to ignore regardless of the openness of the platform itself.
As mobile handset alliance members, these vendors have access to Android source code well ahead of third-party developers. As such, the openness of Android is a distant secondary issue, if at all. These vendors are concerned, however, with developers building applications for the platform and end-user adoption.
Application developers may care about Android’s openness, but establishing and maintaining a large user base and the ease with which the platform enables developers to deliver applications, and pay for directly or indirectly, are much larger concerns. Android’s ever growing vendor support and Google’s investments to close the feature/function gap to Apple iOS are the key to developer success on the platform, making openness an afterthought.
Those who should care the most about openness –users — continue to select products that optimize user experience over openness; it’s an interesting development, considering that the traditional PC provides a highly customizable environment with the flexibility to mix and match hardware with operating systems. One would have expected mobile buyers to seek this same level of hardware and software flexibility in their “post-PC” device purchases.
Continue preparing for increased Android usage in your enterprise
Handset vendors, carriers, application developers, and users have made it easier for Google to minimize its focus on openness with an eye toward delivering functionality simply by embracing Android with enthusiasm.
Regardless of whether openness ever truly mattered to the potential success of Android, the question has become increasingly irrelevant with each market share percentage that Android captures. As an IT decision maker, your best bet is to continue to prepare for an influx of Android-based devices, personal and company-purchased, in your network, sooner than you may have hoped.