Google's clampdown on Android

One of the more compelling arguments for Android as an OS in phones/tablets/whatever has been its openness, especially as contrasted with Apple’s closed iOS. The fact that both have been successful has made the marketplace really interesting to watch (and as a consumer, I welcome this kind of competition). One of the pitfalls with Android, however, has been that in a sense Google has been at the mercy of the handset makers, as they’re the ones tweaking and/or delivering the product to the end-user. So while Google does a lot (most?) of the heavy lifting, all their work can be “ruined” by some handset maker’s goofy customizations. In a sense, Google was saying “here’s a lot of really cool stuff for your phone” and the handset guys were putting it on the hardware as they wished.

In addition, this kind of wild west approach makes the Android market murky to the non-tech consumer, as each and every vendor put a little of their own special sauce in their version of Android. Sure, these changes are often minor, but they exist, and I’d assert that complexity is confusing to the public at large.

That’s changing.

Google has recently announced they are going to exert more control over the development and disposition of Android on mobile devices. They’re putting in some control on tweaking and partnerships. It’s an interesting twist to what’s going on, and will undoubtedly affect what Android devices come rolling down the pike from here on out. I guess John Law has arrived in the Wild West.

A couple of perspectives on the issue:

Will Smith over at writes on the issue here - they’re big on Android so I would classify this as a pro-Android type of viewpoint. He thinks the changes are positive.

Horace Dediu writes over at asymco on the same topic here. I’d classify him as sort of in the Apple camp (though I think he’s pretty independent, he does focus quite a lot on Apple, though I’m sure he would say that’s because there is a lot of good analysis there and a lot to like about how Apple is executing their business plan). Horace thinks there are plusses and minuses, but thinks there are wide-reaching implications to the change.

The changes that Google has talked about affect early release of new versions to specific hardware manufacturers, something that’s always taken place. It just means that when Google chooses a manufacturer to highlight new version features, they’re going to have more influence on the kinds of manufacturer specific junk that they can put on, like the Moto Blur stuff, or HTC’s custom interface stuff.

The full source code will still eventually be released, which still means that people can do whatever they like with it. Its effect on development for everyone else seems as though it would be virtually non-existent.

I’ve been reading John Gruber’s hysterical, insane take on this. Personally, put me in the “optimistic” camp. If Google can prevent manufacturer-fuckery by binding HTC/Motorola/etc. to tighter contracts, great, the Android ecosystem is better for it.

As far as the “lol not open lol” critique goes, well, Android’s always been a cathedral and not a bazaar (which is not that weird; many open source projects are developed in a closed way), and as long as they continue to release the source in a reasonably timely way (I’ll cut them some slack on the Honeycomb thing, because it’s clear that it’s not REALLY finished, despite devices existing), then that’s fine.

And of course if carriers don’t like being forced into the role of commodity vendors, they always have the option of picking up the latest version of Android and forking it. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if HTC or Motorola were to try that, given their love of fucking with things. (If they do try it, I predict that their fork fails abysmally, due to the part where they suck at software development compared to Google, but hey.)

I think Google regards the carriers and hardware vendors in the Android eco-system as a necessary evil, but it has given itself only a few levers to keep them in line. One is the Android Market, and one is early access to the latest version of the code. I think Amazon is doing its best to undercut the influence of lever 1, and so Google is signalling its intent to push lever 2 harder.

Viewing this strictly from the perspective of the telecom industry and how it interacts with customers, it’s a great step forward. The telecoms dread the idea of becoming commodities, which is why they try so hard to control closed ecosystems wherein each mobile provider offers unique handsets not available on other vendors and unique custom software on that user equipment. The thing is, while commoditization would harm profits for telecoms and equipment manufacturers it would be great for consumers. Fierce competition based purely on the bottom line would really cause prices to nosedive.

This is a classic case of companies acting in ways that boost their bottom line at the expense of society as a whole so I’m glad Google is trying to break the closed ecosystem model even if it is for self interested reasons.

I see this as a good thing as long as they still release the code. I would call the manufacturer bloatware one of the platform’s greatest competitive weaknesses. Though it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected on my recently-acquired Droid X, the pre-packed stuff is all worse than stock Android.

I’m a Blackberry user, so coming from that perspective:

The thing I thought Android had going for it was it was supposed to be open- for the end user.

It seems to me that Motorola/HTC/Samsung/Verizon/etc have used the open aspect to cram their own crap in there, crap that has no purpose other than to sell more services/apps to the end user. Meanwhile, by embedding their software in there, they make it a huge problem for the end user to be able to upgrade their version of Android.

So from what I see, Google is doing right by the customers but their partners are doing wrong. My brother has a Thunderbolt which is using 2.2 right now but supposed to get 2.3 later this year. Why can’t he simply upgrade now? Well, HTC put that Sense on their, Verizon put their crap on there and so a simple upgrade is out of the question.

Rooting is something people should be able to do as an EXTRA, not to get basic functions like upgrades to work. Otherwise, for all practical purposes, it’s a closed system just like the others.

Yes, in many ways this has the capacity to make the platform more flexible to the end user by preventing them from getting locked down by custom manufacturer apps.

Honeycomb signals that this can no longer be taken for granted.

Honeycomb’s code will definitely be released. It’s just still being worked on, as it’s still rough around the edges.

As if the first several point releases of Android weren’t rough around the edges.

edit: the reality is, Google anoints who gets to be the early players in the Android tablet space with Honeycomb and get the initial traction.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable for Google to do this. But you don’t get to run a closed ecosystem and then pretend you’re more open than the other guy. That’s just irritating.

Basicaly, the new standard seems to be “Open as in ‘suck my dick’.”

I have no point here, I just like saying “‘Open’ as in ‘bite me’.”

Ya, the same as they’ve done with every other release of Android.

I dunno, isn’t this going to lead to forks? And that would be all bad. And Android isn’t truly open any more from this point on.

I don’t think this is a bad move though, as long as it doesn’t lead to carrier bullshit.

Nawid, don’t take this the wrong way, but you aren’t really grasping the issues here. I don’t necessarily blame you, because you’re repeating what a lot of apple fans have been saying.

What’s being talked about here isn’t actually a change to anything. This is actually how it has ALWAYS worked.

Android is still open, just as it always has been. Meaning, you can get full access to all of its source code. This is not changing.

You do not get access to Google’s internally developed Apps, such as Google Maps with Navigation. Again, this is how it has always been. To get those apps, you have always had to pay Google for that stuff. Those apps are not part of Android, they are just apps.

Every time Google makes a new release, they basically choose some hardware maker to be their standard bearer. They give that manufacturer early access to the new release’s source code, and work with them to highlight the new cool stuff in that version. This is how it has always worked.

The only difference now is that Google is indicating that they’re going to have more input in what those early access manufacturers slap ontop of android. This isn’t really Google changing anything, as much as they’re just taking a more active stance on it. They’re not extending their rights, or restricting anyone else’s.

And, again, this does not in any way make anything “less open”.


Take a look at the ‘flagship’ devices of the past: The G1 was basically pure Android. The Droid1 was basically pure 2.0, and the Nexus one was pure 2.1. The G2 was probably the closest thing to pure 2.2, although it was hardly timely, and the Nexus S of course is pure 2.3. The Xoom is pure Honeycomb. Google’s always ensured that their first “Google Experience” device is as pure as possible.

I am pretty horribly pissed that any of these companies (Google and HTC being the worst) seem to think that “open source” and “GPL license” (the latter’s more HTC’s issue) mean “release it eventually.” No, legally, that’s not what they mean. They mean release it, period. Don’t hold it back, don’t restrict it: let it be free, man. Hippies n shit.

I’ve done a pretty horrid job of arguing that because I’m neither a FOSS activist or a lawyer, but more informed people than I have covered it well enough. If nothing else, hold the code away from the HTCs and Motorolas of the world and let groups like Cyanogenmod and Geeksphone have at it a few months early. . . THEN see how awesome Android can be :)

On the hardware side tighter control is such a great thing for developers. The fragmentation in the Android market is terrible for indie game development, and a more standardized set of devices would be a welcome change.

I’ve got no strong opinions on the software side, but I welcome the control on the hardware.

I don’t worry about forking much because I don’t foresee anyone successfully forking Android. Though I think there are probably a few handset makers who might give it a try. Handset makers just don’t have the internal development expertise to do things like this. Their corporate culture is all wrong and they always underestimate the effort involved and end up with something half-assed. Any attempts on their part to fork Android will end up with them realizing they could have had something better and cheaper by sticking with Google.