In the great mobile-device wars, Google (GOOG) has portrayed itself as the open-source crusader doing battle against the leaders in proprietary software—Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), and Research In Motion (RIM:CN).
Unlike its rivals, Google makes the underlying code for its popular Android operating system publicly available, and anyone can access it and tailor it for use in mobile phones, tablets, television set-top boxes, even automobiles.
So what happens when Google decides to keep the latest version of its operating system to itself? Android fans are about to find out.
Google says it will delay the distribution of its newest Android source code, dubbed Honeycomb, at least for the foreseeable future. The search giant says the software, which is tailored specifically for tablet computers that compete against Apple's iPad, is not yet ready to be altered by outside programmers and customized for other devices, such as phones.
Plight of Small Developers
In the past, Google has given device makers early access to versions of Android so they could work on their products. It would then typically release the source code to the masses a few months later, letting all comers do what they want with the code. HTC, Samsung Electronics, Motorola Mobility Holdings, and other big manufacturers already have access to Honeycomb.
It's the 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."
Rubin says that if Google were to open-source the Honeycomb code now, as it has with other versions of Android at similar periods in their development, it couldn't prevent developers from putting the software on phones "and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones."
"Android is an open-source project," he adds. "We have not changed our strategy."
In Its Own Interests
Dave Rosenberg, a longtime executive in the open-source software world, describes Google's moves as an affront to hard-core open-source enthusiasts but adds that he isn't surprised. "Everyone expects this level of complete trust from a company that's worth $185 billion," he says. "To me, that is ridiculous. You have to be realistic and see that Google will do what is in [its] best interests at all times."
Nevertheless, the open-ended delay will likely generate unease among device makers, application developers, and members of the open-source community, many of whom are financially and philosophically invested in Android. Some critics have long questioned Google's commitment to openness, and this latest news will give them added ammunition.
It may also provide justification for critics of Android, who argued that Google created what amounts to a Wild West of mobile software by allowing people to do what they pleased with Android. Some of the early Android tablets, for example, looked silly when compared with the iPad, mostly because Android hadn't been built for these types of devices.
Still, device makers took the code and dished out subpar tablets. This time around, Google appears to be reining in openness in favor of a highly controlled release of Honeycomb.
The Open-Source Argument
Open-source purists often contend that projects should be developed from the ground up, in front of the public, with people free to pick and choose the code they want, when they want it. This is the model Intel (INTC) has backed with its open-source rival to Android, called MeeGo.
Eben Moglen, a professor of Law at Columbia Law School and the founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center, believes that Google is simply repeating the past mistakes of other companies that tried to put tight controls around the release of their open-source software. "It's usually a mistake," Moglen says. "Long experience teaches people that exposing the code to the community helps more than it hurts you."
Over the past few weeks, Google has notified device makers of its change in plans with Honeycomb. Android executives have also been telling companies that Google will likely wait to make another open-source distribution of Android software until it completes the next version, called Ice Cream.
Keeping Secrets Secret
Rubin declines to put a timetable on this release but says, "the team is hard at work looking at what it takes to get this running on other devices." While Android is based on the open-source Linux operating system, Google adds plenty of its own code. With Honeycomb, Google focused on tailoring the software for tablets and improving such features as Web browsing and multitasking that are especially important on larger-screen devices. Xoom, an $800 tablet from Motorola that runs Honeycomb, went on sale in February. Samsung, Dell (DELL), HTC, Acer, and other computer and device makers have backed Honeycomb as well and will soon start flooding the market with new tablets. These companies obtained early access to Honeycomb by signing licensing deals with Google.
Google has generally been more supportive of open-source software than rivals, and software such as Linux and the MySQL database sit at the heart of its massive search and advertising business. In many cases, Google improves these products to meet its needs yet doesn't turn the changes over to the broader open-source community, preferring to keep its secret sauce secret.
Still, Google has opted to release some advances to the public and has received praise for these efforts. In particular, it provided the framework for a new type of data analytics system, called Hadoop, that has enjoyed wide adoption by big Web companies and traditional businesses.