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Playtime is over in Android Land. Over the last couple of months Google (GOOG) has reached out to the major carriers and device makers backing its mobile operating system with a message: There will be no more willy-nilly tweaks to the software. No more partnerships formed outside of Google's purview. From now on, companies hoping to receive early access to Google's most up-to-date software will need approval of their plans. And they will seek that approval from Andy Rubin, the head of Google's Android group.
This is the new reality described by about a dozen executives working at key companies in the Android ecosystem. Some of those affected include LG, Toshiba, Samsung, and even Facebook, which has been trying to develop an Android device. There have been enough run-ins to trigger complaints with the Justice Dept., according to a person familiar with the matter. The Google that once welcomed all comers to help get its mobile software off the ground has become far more discriminating—especially for companies that want to include Google services such as search and maps on their hardware. Google also gives chip and device makers that abide by its rules a head start in bringing Android products to market, according to the executives.
When Android hit the scene in 2008, Google had a tantalizing pitch: Android was "open source." That is, Google would do the hard work of developing the code, and hardware and software makers were free to use the system at no charge. Carriers and device makers relished the idea of not paying royalties. Android became the people's mobile software, a free zone that contrasted with the closed worlds of the iPhone (AAPL) and BlackBerry (RIMM). HTC, Motorola (MMI), and Acer could avoid spending billions developing their own operating systems and customize Android with unique services. Carriers got a raft of slick new devices to sell. Consumers enjoyed more choice. And Google's search-advertising business could tap the vast mobile phone market.
Android's share of the smartphone market surged from 9 percent in 2009 to an industry-leading 31 percent worldwide. "I don't think we've seen anything like Android in terms of gaining share," says Bill Gurley, general partner at the venture capital firm Benchmark Capital.
As Google introduced Android updates, each named after a sweet, devices of varying capabilities flooded the market. Some are polished smartphones that used the "Gingerbread" version of the software; others are clunky tablets released before the latest "Honeycomb" update was ready. It isn't easy for consumers to keep up—and the same goes for software makers, who have to retool apps for every version and device to give their products a consistent look and feel.
Google's Rubin, a mobile industry veteran, anticipated such market fragmentation. That's why when Google prepares a new version of Android, it selects a chipmaker and a device maker so that the first smartphones and tablets show off all the bells and whistles. With the first version, for example, Google worked in tandem with Qualcomm (QCOM) and HTC. That first Android smartphone turned HTC into a worldwide brand, and Qualcomm's chips now power 60 percent of Android devices, according to Strategy Analytics. With the latest version, the lucky duo was Nvidia (NVDA) and Motorola. "We know we won't get it first every time," says Rob Chandok, senior vice-president for software strategy at Qualcomm. He says Qualcomm has sped up its testing procedures to try to get new versions of Android onto its chips within three weeks of getting the code.
For the never-anointed—Dell (DELL) and Acer, for example—Android Land can be a harsh place. Hardware makers outside the club often follow their rivals to stores by several months, a virtual death sentence in this market.
Google says its procedures are about quality control, fixing bugs early, and building toward a "common denominator" experience, says John Lagerling, director of global Android partnerships at Google. "After that, the customization can begin."
Over the past few months, according to several people familiar with the matter, Google has been demanding that Android licensees abide by "non-fragmentation clauses" that give Google the final say on how they can tweak the Android code—to make new interfaces and add services—and in some cases whom they can partner with. Google's Rubin says that such clauses have always been part of the Android license, but people interviewed for this story say that Google has recently tightened its policies. Facebook, for example, has been working to fashion its own variant of Android for smartphones. Executives at the social network are unhappy that Google gets to review Facebook's tweaks to Android, say two people who weren't comfortable being named talking about the business. Google has also tried to hold up the release of Verizon (VZ) Android devices that make use of Microsoft's (MSFT) rival Bing search engine, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
It's these types of actions that have prompted the gripes to the Justice Dept., says a person with knowledge of the matter. Google spokeswoman Shari Yoder Doherty declined to comment on Google and its partners or any complaints to the government.
Google has also started delaying the release of Android code to the public, putting smaller device makers and developers at a disadvantage. On Mar. 24, Bloomberg Businessweek reported Google won't widely release Honeycomb's source code for the foreseeable future.
The company's moves are hardly unprecedented in such a fast-moving industry. Google owes it to its partners and consumers to prevent Android from running amok. And yet murmurs abound that Android's master has tightened up too much—that its policies limit licensees' ability to differentiate their products. "The premise of a true open software platform may be where Android started, but it's not where Android is going," says Nokia (NOK) Chief Executive Stephen Elop, a former Microsoft executive who recently inked a deal with his former employer instead of Google. He says he did so in part because he thought he would have more opportunity to innovate atop Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 software.
In the PC realm, Microsoft habituated its partners to expect equal access to new versions of Windows. If anything, says Gartner (IT) analyst Michael Gartenberg, the software giant was equal-opportunity to a fault. "Microsoft often got criticized for treating all partners the same, whether they were doing great work or mediocre work," he says. "Google seems to have no problem with playing favorites."
The bottom line: Despite grumblings, Google's Android mobile operating system is still open—it's just getting more heavily policed.