On Call: No more Mr. Nice Android?

Google is reportedly clamping down on how Android partners use the OS. Though handset makers and app developers won't be pleased, could the new rules benefit consumers?

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
4 min read

Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Google was beginning to take a firmer hand in controlling how partners use the Android operating system on their devices.

Writers Ashlee Vance and Peter Burrows didn't get too specific--they mostly relied on background interviews--but they described a few ways that the Googleplex is taking control. For example, Google now must be involved in all partnerships, developers won't be able to make random tweaks to the software, and developers who get early access to new OS updates will need to inform Android chief Andy Rubin himself. Also, companies that abide by the new rules will get a head start on bringing their products to market.

Though Google has long promoted Android as "open-sourced," meaning that app developers and handset manufacturers can access the OS source code and use it for free, we've long known that partners have to meet Google's Compatibility Definition Document. Beyond that, however, the Android kingdom has always looked a bit lawless. Fragmentation persists two and a half years after the G1's debut and many customers still wait and wait to get the latest OS update (just ask Samsung Galaxy S owners about their promised helping of Froyo). Also, when things go wrong, finding someone to take responsibility hasn't been easy.

A good thing or not?
In a way, it's not surprising if Rubin and his team are trying to assert their authority. And I'm not shocked that Google's partners don't appear to be welcoming the news with cheer. We haven't heard of any company going on record to oppose it, but Bloomberg Businessweek said some have complained to the Department of Justice. On a level I get their complaints. It would be frustrating to see Google play favorites and to have to suddenly jump through hoops to get the OS. What's more, obtaining approval to make small software changes doesn't quite fit with what Android is supposed to be. Sure, some will argue that Android never really was open-source, but its flexibility has been a boon both to Google and to the smartphone world.

Yet, when thinking of customers I can't help but like some of the spirit behind these reported provisions. Granted, the hard-core users who like to tinker with Android won't be happy, but your average customer who just wants his or her phone to work and get the latest updates on time could see a benefit. And remember that attracting those middle-of-the-road users who might otherwise flock to Apple or RIM is what Android needs to do if it wants to continue growing.

Fragmentation and OS updates
So let's say Google really is demanding, as Vance and Burrows report, that Android licensees must abide by "non-fragmentation clauses" that regulate partnerships and dictate how they can alter the Android code. If the aim is to deliver OS updates promptly and efficiently then I wouldn't make much of a fuss as an Android user. The partnership approval point is a little control-freakish, yes, but I don't want a custom interface, no matter how pretty it might be, interfering with getting Gingerbread on time. Eliminating fragmentation needs to remain one of Android's top goals, and I accept that I might have to give up some control to make it happen.

I'd also argue that Android could benefit from a more seamless experience across devices. Outside of the hardware differences, I shouldn't need to relearn the OS when I switch devices from Motorola to HTC. You can change a few visual elements if you like, but, for instance, I'd like to see the the Settings menus organized the same way across the Android family. That way, I would know exactly where to access setup and maintenance functions. Customers also need to be sure that apps will work across as many devices as possible, and handsets should only rarely be left out in the cold when an OS update becomes available.

When things go wrong
Finally, if these restrictions help Google set up a clear path of responsibility for customer service, then I'd be open to a little give and take. As I said last year, too many customers come to a dead end when something goes wrong on their phones. Each party--the handset maker, the carrier, and Google--may get the customer partway, but many people never make it all the way to a solution. Hopefully, Google has this in mind if it's swooping in and taking the reins. Indeed, if it can keep more problems from occurring, then perhaps more requirements aren't such a bad thing.

Absolutely, if these new restrictions are true, I don't love everything about them. Requiring approval of partnerships would be a little overboard--especially if they have to involve Rubin--and rewarding only those that play nice is silly and unfair to customers. But given that Android still can be a mess, I don't deny that some cleanup is in order. Rules may help, but finding the right balance of rules will be tricky.