Android and the Great Openness Debate

Fragmentation has long been a criticism of Google’s Android mobile platform, but until recently, its reputation for openness had been relatively undisputed.

Of course, it’s not hard to be seen as open when your principal competition comes from Cupertino. On the other hand, recent decisions in the Googleplex are making that distinction less and less clear.

The company’s recent announcement that it would delay the distribution of its Honeycomb source code to outside programmers, most notably, has tarnished Android’s “open” image in more than a few eyes.

So, too, have the “non-fragmentation clauses” Google’s reportedly been adding to Android licenses, giving it the right of approval for any changes made to the Android code.

Bottom line? Enquiring minds in the Linux blogosphere are wondering whether Android is really open anymore.

‘They Are in It for Themselves’

“There is a reason I don’t trust Google any farther than I can throw them — which isn’t far considering the size of that company,” Thoughts on Technology blogger and Bodhi Linux lead developer Jeff Hoogland told Linux Girl. “While I know they have done a good bit to stimulate the FOSS economy, there is no doubting that they are in it for themselves and the almighty dollar.”

The fact that Google is “holding the source so other companies can’t produce devices right away is just further proof of this,” Hoogland charged.

“I wrote a while back why a true Linux advocate should want Meego to succeed, and even with Nokia’s kicking them to the curb, I still have hope we may see a Meego handheld or two by the end of the year,” he added. “A platform backed by a not-for-profit (such as the Linux Foundation) is the best way for a truly open mobile OS to develop.”

‘We Aren’t There Yet’

Similarly, “long-run it would be nice to see a truly open phone/tablet OS develop,” opined Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

Nevertheless, “I don’t think Google is the one to do this at this point,” Travers added. “Really, it seems to me that the major thing missing right now is the display layer (what we use GNOME or KDE for on desktops and laptops). We aren’t there yet, though.”

Travers remains hopeful “that the competition from WebOS will provide some greater incentive for openness on both sides, and that this will result in newer replacements that are even more open,” he told Linux Girl.

‘They Are Underestimating the Community’

Slashdot blogger and consultant Gerhard Mack “can understand Google’s motivations here, since they are worried their code won’t be stable on other devices,” he admitted.

“Unfortunately, they are underestimating what the community could do for them if they opened up the code,” he noted. “There are plenty of hobbyist programmers who absolutely love to mess with phones and would check in fixes as needed.”

For Slashdot blogger hairyfeet, on the other hand, “I told you so” is a fair summary of his response.

“There is ONLY one reason, and one reason alone, for a company to go out of their way to keep GPL V2 with so many going GPL V3, and that is because part of their business plan involves the users losing freedoms thanks to ‘TiVo tricking,'” hairyfeet told Linux Girl.

‘No Corporation Is Your Friend’

“I know some like Wikipedia call it TiVoization, but that doesn’t really point out its true purpose: to trick developers into making BSD code while thinking their code is protected by the four freedoms, while at the same time tricking end users out of those same freedoms by making them think a device is F/OSS when it is in reality just as locked down as any Apple or Windows device — probably worse,” hairyfeet explained.

Among the key lessons to be learned, he added, are that “1. NO corporation is your friend — if the choice is to burn you and make cash or make nice they WILL burn you,” hairyfeet said. “2. GPL V2 is a contaminated and broken license, and any developer that releases under GPL V2 might as well just go PD and call it a day,” he added.

Finally, “3. It is better to support companies like HP that have actual long and proven track records with F/OSS instead of companies like Google, which has a history of sharing only the parts they believe doesn’t give anyone else any advantage, such as how they refuse to release their file system even though it is based on F/OSS code,” hairyfeet went on.

“So if you get an Android device thinking you’re gonna get any more freedom than a rooted iPhone or WinPhone then I’m sorry,” hairyfeet concluded. “Instead, pick up whatever one you can find for cheap while you wait on WebOS, which WILL be F/OSS if past HP actions are to be judged.”

‘Kicking M$’s Butt Is the Highest Priority’

Not everyone blamed Google so severely, however.

“Google is committed to Android being open source software; they are not committed to Android being entirely Free as in the GPL,” blogger Robert Pogson began.

“I disagree with them about the license that should be used, but that is their choice,” Pogson went on. “Kicking M$’s butt is the highest priority for me and Google is doing that.”

Toward that end, if Android 3.0 must be restricted until it is standardized, “that works for me,” he opined. “They say that Android is Open Source and I take them at their word — they will open the source when it is ready. They have opened several previous versions and there is no reason to stop doing that in the long run.”

‘It’s More Posturing’

Indeed, “in the hypercompetitive phone and tablet markets, everyone is looking for an advantage, which is why they’re using Android in the first place,” asserted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site. “Manufacturers are now learning that even smartphones are becoming generic commodities, and that they need to differentiate based on price, added software, and now *not* breaking compatibility.”

Ultimately, “this is good for the customer, who knows that her apps and her smartphone will ‘just work,'” Hudson opined. “It’s also good for the long-term viability of Android.

“So, while the handset manufacturers might grumble now (along with Facebook, which is rumored to be working on their own Android-based smartphone),” Hudson concluded, “I think it’s more posturing than anything else.”

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