How “Open” is Android really?

With all the antitrust shenanigans going on around Apple at the moment, I think this article is probably worth a read.

What’s even more fascinating is how closed Android is, despite Google’s don’t be evil mantra and the permissive Apache 2 license which Android SDK source code is under. Paraphrasing a famous line from Henry Ford’s book on the Model-T, anyone can have Android in their own colour as long as it’s black. Android is the best example of how a company can use open source to build up interest and community participation, while running a very tight commercial model.

Just to be clear here; we are talking about the closed aspects of Android’s OEM (pre-load) ecosystem, and not the software developers (post-load) ecosystem that you or I use.

From a high level, Google uses 8 control points to manage the make-up of Android handsets:

1. Private branches. There are multiple, private codelines available to selected partners (typically the OEM working on an Android project) on a need-to-know basis only. The private codelines are an estimated 6+ months ahead of the public SDK and therefore essential for an OEM to stay competitive. The main motivation for the public SDK and source code is to introduce the latest features (those stemming from private branches) into third party apps.

2.  Closed review process. All code reviewers work for Google, meaning that Google is the only authority that can accept or reject a code submission from the community. There is also a rampant NIH (not invented here) culture inside Google that assumes code written by Googlers is second to none. Ask anyone who’s tried to contribute a patch to Android and you hear the same story: very few contributions get in and often no reason is offered on rejection.

3. Speed of evolution. Google innovates the Android platform at a speed that’s unprecedented for the mobile industry, releasing 4 major updates (1.6  to 2.1) in 18 months. OEMs wanting to build on Android have no choice but to stay close to Google so as not to lose on new features/bug fixes released. The Nexus One, Motorola Droid, HTC G1 and other Experience handsets serve the purpose of innovation testbeds for Google.

4. Incomplete software. The public SDK source code is by no means sufficient to build a handset. Key building blocks missing are radio integration, international language packs, operator packs – and of course Google’s closed source apps like Market, Gmail and GTalk. There are a few custom ROM builders with a full Android stack like the Cyanogen distribution, but these use binaries that are not licensed for distribution in commercial handsets.

5. Gated developer community. Android Market is the exclusive distribution and discovery channel for the 40,000+ apps created by developers; and is available to phone manufacturers on separate agreement. This is one of the strongest control points as no OEM would dare produce a handset that doesn’t tap into the Android Market (perhaps with the exception of DECT phones, picture frames, in-car terminals or other exotic uses of Android). However, one should acknowledge that Android’s acceptance process for Market apps is liberal as it gets – and the complete antithesis of the Apple vetting process for apps.

6. Anti-fragmentation agreement. Little is known about the anti-fragmentation agreement signed by OHA members but we understand it’s a commitment to not release handsets which are not CTS compliant.

7. Private roadmap. The visibility offered into Android’s roadmap is pathetic. At the time of writing, the roadmap published publicly is a year out of date (Q1 2009). To get a sneak peak into the private roadmap you need Google’s blessing.

8. Android trademark. Google holds the trademark to the Android name; as a manufacturer you can only leverage on the Android branding with approval from Google, much like how you need Sun’s approval to claim your handset is Java-powered.

In short, it’s either the Google way or the highway. If you want to branch off Android you‘re completely on your own and you need resources of the size of China Mobile (see their OMS effort) to make it viable (hint: China Mobile is the biggest network operator bar none).

The Open Handset Alliance is another myth; since Google managed to attract sufficient industry interest in 2008, the OHA is simply a set of signatures with membership serving only as a VIP Club badge.

A fair conclusion :

So, is Android evil? No, it isn’t. It has done no harm – quite the contrary, Android has boosted the level of innovation [in] mobile software. The point of the article is not to vilify Google or concoct visions of Darth Vader; but to balance the level of openness hysteria with a reality check on the commercial dynamics of mobile open source.

What is quite interesting to note though is one of Andy Rubin’s answers to a question in a recent interview :

When asked whether Android apps from Google might have an advantage over other companies’ apps in the Android Market, the discussion again seemed to implicitly veer toward Brand X.

“We use the same tools we expect our third-party developers to,” Mr. Rubin said. “We have an SDK we give to developers. and when we write our Gmail app, we use the same SDK. A lot of guys have private APIs. We don’t. That’s on policy and on technology. If there’s a secret API to hook into billing system we open up that billing system to third parties. If there’s a secret API to allow application multitasking, we open it up. There are no secret APIs. That is important to highlight for Android sake. Open is open and we live by our own implementations.”

From The New York Times.

Someone is not being totally truthful.

As I argued yesterday, without Apple and the iPhone, much innovation in the smart-phone marketplace would not have happened. Likewise with Google. They are also spurring innovation. But they too are operating as closed a system as they can get away with, and just like Apple want to control as much as possible.

Make no mistake, Android is Google’s, and no-one else’s. No matter how much branding and innovation third parties put into their devices or OEM software.

It will be interesting to see how well Flash is able to plug into the various flavours of Android OS, and how long it is before Adobe and Google are sniping at each other.

Posted: May 7th, 2010
Categories: Android, Development Tools, Google, Opinion
Tags: , ,
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