Google’s recent announcement that Android Honeycomb will remain closed to outside developers, while partners have access to the code isn’t sitting well with open source proponents. However, the stark reality is that Android’s growing mobile maretshare has little to do with how open the operating system truly is.
Android a bait and switch to open source developers?
In a BusinessWeek interview, Google’s Andy Rubin, vice president of Android engineering, explained that Google had to make some design tradeoffs to ship a tablet-optimized version of Android, dubbed Honeycomb. Rubin explains, “we didn’t want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones.” To prevent developers from trying to run Honeycomb on phones, a scenario that Google didn’t plan or test for, Google has decided to keep the source code for Honeycomb private “for the foreseeable future”.
While Android is often referred to as an open source mobile platform, the development approach is far from open. Google develops Android behind closed doors and makes the source code available when, and as it now appears, if, Google feels is appropriate.
Not surprisingly, some open source developers are taking an exception to the Honeycomb news. Linux developer Adam Drew writes:
In hindsight Android was a bit of a bait and switch with a dash of divide and conquer. Most of the open-source folks are fine with Android being closed up so long as it is opened up later and that means that we lose a large portion of the potential community to Android. This has translated to lower participation in projects like MeeGo and little demand on manufacturers to provide devices that we can easily install other operating systems on. If Android were fully closed we’d have a large base of support waiting to come over to freer pastures but with Android existing in this quasi-open state enough of the open source crowd will stick with it to make it hard for critical mass to grow behind projects like MeeGo.
Openness is often trumped by other stakeholder concerns
RedMonk’s Stephen O’Grady tackles the question of whether it matters if Android is open or not. O’Grady writes:
But while developers are unquestionably and understandably disappointed, there is little evidence to suggest that a less than open Android will have a material cost in developer traction associated with it. Apple’s iOS, a platform that is not open source, has immense developer traction with over three hundred and fifty thousand applications available at the moment.
Based on market share of mobile devices shipped or number of applications for a particular mobile platform, it’s abundantly clear that mobile operating system success has little to do with openness.
In fact, O’Grady concludes that while Google may have felt that openness would turn out to be a differentiator in the market, that hypothesis simply hasn’t been proven out.
If openness isn’t driving Android’s growth, then what is?
Benchmark Capital general partner Bill Gurley’s great post titled “The Freight Train That Is Android” provides some clues.
Gurley argues that Google is attempting to “take any layer that lives between themselves and the consumer and make it free (or even less than free).” This is incredibly important to handset vendors and carriers who have an incentive to use and promote Android over alternatives. The fact that Google shares mobile search revenue with its handset partners makes Android not just free, but a profit center, which is hard for a vendor to ignore regardless of the openness of the platform itself.
As mobile handset alliance members, these vendors have access to Android source code well ahead of third party developers. As such, the openness of Android is a distant secondary issue, if at all. These vendors are however concerned with developers building applications for the platform and end user adoption.
Application developers may care about Android’s openness. However, a large user base and the ease with which the platform enables developers to deliver applications that end users will value, and pay for directly or indirectly, are much larger concerns. The market reach of Android through the ever growing number of vendors supporting Android and Google’s investments to close the feature/function gap to Apple iOS can’t be ignored. These two facts render the question of Android’s openness into the background for the vast majority of developers.
Finally, end users, who should arguably care the most about the openness of their mobile devices, continue to vote with their wallets and select products that optimize user experience over openness. This is an interesting observation considering that their traditional PC environments allows for a highly customizable environment with the flexibility to mix and match hardware with operating systems. One would have expected mobile buyers to seek this same level of hardware and software flexibility in their “post PC” device purchases.
Continue preparing for increased Android usage in your enterprise
Handset vendors, carriers, application developers and end users continue to select other priorities over openness when making a mobile device decision. These stakeholder actions have surely made it easier for Google to minimize its focus on openness with an eye on delivering the functional and non-functional requirements of key stakeholders.
Whether openness ever truly mattered to the potential success of Android is anyone’s guess. The question becomes increasingly irrelevant with each day and each market share percentage that Android captures. As an IT decision maker, your best bet is to continue to prepare for an influx of Android-based devices, personal and company-purchased, in your network; sooner than you may have hoped.