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Google Android needs both control and community

Google has a tightrope to walk between control and community to make Android work, but the industry depends upon it getting this right.

To beat Apple in mobile, Google is going to need more open-source developers. But it's also going to need more Google.

Take me to your leader(s), earthling

It's tough to balance corporate interests with developer interests, and particularly in open-source development. TechCrunch's Michael Arrington suggests that Android developers are frustrated over having to support multiple code bases to cover the diverse handsets on which Android runs, which is indeed a problem. Basically, these developers are asking Google to exercise more control over Android to ensure it works seamlessly on a range of different devices.

Such developers, however, also want more choice than Apple offers them. Somewhere in the resolution to that tension is a big market opportunity for Google, one that carriers and consumers are going to give it time to figure out.

Google's Android efforts have looked Apple-esque at times, as Linux Journal notes. This is a problem. Google may not have discovered "the evil room" on its Silicon Valley campus, but even a hint of "evil" from Google could send developers packing.

But Google is no Apple: its DNA meshes well with that of open-source developers', as Tom Foremski notes. The company really doesn't want to do evil.

Its dilemma, however, is that it may not be able to avoid some of the "evil" that upsets open-source developers. Like control. Control is critical to good software, something that the best proprietary and open-source software has long demonstrated. Linux, for example, depends upon Linus Torvalds serving his role as "benevolent dictator."

The difference is that it's easier for Linus Torvalds to be autocratic than Google. He's an individual. Google is a company.

Even so, Google isn't going to beat Apple at its own game (i.e., deathlike grip over all aspects of a product). To win, Google must marshal an external development community, one that doesn't like to be managed and, as Dan Lyons (aka "Fake Steve Jobs) points out, one for whom rebellion in the form of 'forking' is par for the course.

Google is therefore left with a strategy that depends upon diversity not wanting to be overly diverse.

This is a challenge, but also an opportunity.

If the company can learn to exercise Linus Torvalds-like control without appearing to dominate Android, the project will win. It certainly has a lot of people cheering for it. It also has growing experience that suggests it's learning to walk the fine line between community and control.

As CNET writes, "device makers see Android as their biggest hope to compete against Apple's iPhone and Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices in the smartphone market." Bingo. Carriers can't afford to cede all control to Apple and RIM, and consumers remain individualistic enough to demand devices that fit their needs, whether they're based in India or Canada or Armenia.

The world isn't going to abandon that diversity to uniformly converge on the iPhone. It's just not. There is no one handset to rule them all, Sauron-style.

And so long as it's not, developers will give Google leeway and time to figure out the optimal development model for Android.

While TechCrunch highlights technical problems with Android's handset support, this strikes me as a short-term, highly solvable problem. It's a relatively safe bet that Google will figure out ever easier ways to manage development across diverse devices, as others have done.

Volantis, for example, offers an open-source approach to manage Web development across an ever broadening array of mobile devices: 6,000 and counting. (Disclosure: I am an adviser to Volantis.)

Google could do the same. It has time. As ZDNet's Dana Blankenhorn writes:

Google's cost structure gives it the power to be patient, something no other market player has. The Android bandwagon is built on this patience.

With over $4 billion in mobile advertising revenue that Coda Research Consultancy is projecting for 2015, it's worth it to Google to figure this out. I suspect that, like Red Hat's certified Linux, over time we'll see Google certify Android applications. There are more mobile devices than different servers and server architectures, but it's essentially the same problem.

Developers may find Google's control of Android irksome, but it's less burdensome than Apple's winner-take-all-and-we're-the-only-winner approach, and it's worth it to see device compatibility issues dissipate.