Alleged crackdown shows Android politicking

Google belatedly rejects the idea that it's reining in Android hardware partners. But where there's smoke, there are probably at least smoldering coals.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read
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Is Google strong-arming the Android world by bullying handset manufacturers and un-open-sourcing the mobile operating system?

Andy Rubin belatedly got around to denying that accusation, made last week in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek story, dismissing it as FUD in a blog post. "I think I'm having a Gene Amdahl moment," Rubin said, referring to the famed computer designer's term for the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM used to undermine his mainframe business.

Specifically, Rubin said Google remains "committed to fostering the development of an open platform for the mobile industry and beyond." He denied that Google forbids other companies from modifying Android with their own interfaces, such as HTC's Sense UI. An "anti-fragmentation" program has existed since Android 1.0, not the new 3.0 Honeycomb release, to help maintain Android compatibility. Google will get around to releasing the source code--in the case of Honeycomb, when the features of that tablet-optimized version of Android arrive in phones.

But I say where there's smoke, there's fire, or perhaps in this case some smoldering coals. FUD may stretch the truth, but it's certainly a form of communication.

There may not be any new restrictions in place, technically, but Google might be expressing more concerns when handset makers venture farther from the standard Android build. Given how loudly people complain about some deviations from standard Android--I haven't run into one I liked yet--I could see why Google might be interested in frowning at the practice if not banning outright.

And disgruntled phone makers, eager for a little more leverage in negotiations with a big business partner on whom they're dependent, are happy to leak tidbits to the media to get a better bargaining position. That's probably doubly true for second-tier contenders eager to attain the high status of partners such as HTC, Samsung, and Motorola.

related links
On Call: No more Mr. Nice Android?
Google issues Android anti-fragmentation tool
Angry Birds spotlights Android fragmentation

Google can't be happy with how easily people accepted the Android crackdown story as true. It's therefore mystifying that it took a week to issue a straightforward rebuttal.

During that time, for example, Apple advocate John Gruber asserted, "Google's no more 'open' than Apple is," Android executives' promises notwithstanding. And while iOS fanboys had plenty of time to lash the Android fanboys, some of the latter camp adopted a Google's-just-doing-what's-needed defense.

One issue at the heart of this debate is fragmentation, which, broadly defined, refers to differences between Android devices. That can cause problems for developers who must support differing hardware--buttons, processor power, hardware keyboards, screen sizes--and for users who might be confused with software interface differences from one phone to another.

Here, Google is changing Android. Google is working on a technological fix for Android fragmentation that's built into Honeycomb and available for programmers to use in software that runs on Android as far back as version 1.6. Conveniently, that approach also makes it easier for the same software to work both on small phones and larger tablets.

Another issue at the heart of this debate is the open-source nature of Android. Since its inception, it hasn't been liberally shared and cooperatively developed in the way many open-source projects such as Linux are created. Instead, new versions of Android are cooked up behind closed doors and eventually released. That gives those official Android business partners, who can see the secret workings, a big edge over those who just pick up the code later. To be competitive with products like smartphones, companies need to be on the inside track.

Here, it doesn't look like Google is changing its ways. The Android club remains intact

Stepping back from the minutiae for a moment, though, it's worth a moment to think of Google's grander plans.

Apple is a rival for Android, certainly, but the Android business for Google is very different from the iOS business for Apple. iOS is a means to an end: Apple selling gadgets and strengthening the ecosystem of applications and content available through iTunes. Android is a means to a very different end: fostering a broader use of the mobile Internet, where Google has revenue-generating services such as ads on search results and Google Maps and subscriptions to Google Apps.

To that end, Google certainly isn't likely to kill the goose that's laying a big mobile computing golden egg. It may be tightening the reins, but fundamentally, it still has a powerful interest in spreading Android not just to as many phones and tablets as possible but also to in-dash car computers, smart TV sets, satellite navigation devices, game consoles, and whatever other Net-connected devices people will attach to their lives.

And for the record, here's what Rubin had to say, in full:

I think I'm having a Gene Amdahl moment (http://goo.gl/7v4kf)

Recently, there's been a lot of misinformation in the press about Android and Google's role in supporting the ecosystem. I'm writing in the spirit of transparency and in an attempt to set the record straight. The Android community has grown tremendously since the launch of the first Android device in October 2008, but throughout we've remained committed to fostering the development of an open platform for the mobile industry and beyond.

We don't believe in a "one size fits all" solution. The Android platform has already spurred the development of hundreds of different types of devices - many of which were not originally contemplated when the platform was first created. What amazes me is that the even though the quantity and breadth of Android products being built has grown tremendously, it's clear that quality and consistency continue to be top priorities. Miraculously, we are seeing the platform take on new use cases, features and form factors as it's being introduced in new categories and regions while still remaining consistent and compatible for third party applications.

As always, device makers are free to modify Android to customize any range of features for Android devices. This enables device makers to support the unique and differentiating functionality of their products. If someone wishes to market a device as Android-compatible or include Google applications on the device, we do require the device to conform with some basic compatibility requirements. (After all, it would not be realistic to expect Google applications - or any applications for that matter - to operate flawlessly across incompatible devices). Our "anti-fragmentation" program has been in place since Android 1.0 and remains a priority for us to provide a great user experience for consumers and a consistent platform for developers. In fact, all of the founding members of the Open Handset Alliance agreed not to fragment Android when we first announced it in 2007. Our approach remains unchanged: there are no lock-downs or restrictions against customizing UIs. There are not, and never have been, any efforts to standardize the platform on any single chipset architecture.

Finally, we continue to be an open source platform and will continue releasing source code when it is ready. As I write this the Android team is still hard at work to bring all the new Honeycomb features to phones. As soon as this work is completed, we'll publish the code. This temporary delay does not represent a change in strategy. We remain firmly committed to providing Android as an open source platform across many device types.

The volume and variety of Android devices in the market continues to exceed even our most optimistic expectations. We will continue to work toward an open and healthy ecosystem because we truly believe this is best for the industry and best for consumers.