Google’s Android: Just How Open is Open?

Have you noticed it’s impossible to talk about Android without mentioning that it’s “open”? In fact, I think it’s the law.

How many times has “open” (or my favorite, “openness”) been used in the coverage surrounding the Android/G1 introduction? I wouldn’t want to be the one to count it.

So with all this talk about “open”, I think it’s fair to look into just how “open” we’re talking about.

Let’s be clear, there are two touted advantages of being “open”:

  • The OS can be modified as a hardware maker or carrier sees fit.
  • Anybody and everybody can write apps and make them available for Android-based phones.

Regarding #1, any OS effort a hardware maker or carrier exerted to give them a potential advantage would have to be shared with others by virtue of Android’s license. Therefore, I would not expect to see anything radical come from those groups. After all, there’s little incentive to develop an advantage that can’t remain an advantage.

Reason #2 is where all the fun (and hoopla) is, but it’s not so simple. I think the idea that an “Android app” will run on most any Android phone or carrier is fantasy, and will be a source of frustration on the platform.

For example, Amazon’s MP3 Store is on the new G1 phone from HTC/T-Mobile. However, what is the G1 becomes available on Verizon? Will Verizon allow songs to download over WiFi (will they even allow WiFi?) as opposed to their favored VCAST service? Maybe, maybe not; the point is that the various carriers will certainly have different rules for what they will and will not allow.

Another example: Tethering is not allowed on the G1, but what if someone like, say, Nullriver posts a tethering app on the Android market place? Hey, it’s “open”, right? Who’s to stop them?

Naturally, T-Mobile will go to Google to get the app pulled. Does Google just say they’re hosting the site and not responsible for content because it’s an “open” community? With all their talk of “open” and a “marketplace” I sometimes get that impression. But wouldn’t Google would be abdicating their responsibility by doing so?

If Google does nothing, then T-Mobile must go after the developer themselves; and they’re also hit with the realization that Google may not want to be a partner when it comes to delivering bad news, only when it comes to taking credit. That’s not a good situation.

Further, whether Google or T-Mobile initiates action against the developer, the key point is that the tethering application would likely not be allowed to stand. In short, “open” does not allow all things to all people, no matter how great the word may sound.

There are a boatload of other examples. What about apps violating copyrights? Or privacy? Again, will Google be the “police” here? If so, they’ll have to make some Apple-like decisions. They’re going to find any schadenfreude they may have had with the bad press surrounding Apple’s rejection of a handful of iPhone apps will come home to roost when similar situations land on their shoulders. In such cases I believe we’ll see that “open” isn’t as “open” as some would believe.

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2 thoughts on “Google’s Android: Just How Open is Open?

  1. Luis,

    Yes, those distinctions should be made, but Android fans and the tech press rarely make them.

    The THEORY of Android is as some single “open” entity, but the REALITY of Android is that each such phone will be based on a loose collaboration of Google, a carrier, and a hardware maker. I believe the various communities modifying the Android OS represent a fourth group. Finally, you add into the mix the developers writing the apps themselves. Not one of those groups has the same goal in mind.

    By the way, it irks me that some who praise the Google phone and its openness while slamming Apple neglect to mention that, out of the box, the G1 supports Google for email. Period. The iPhone supported any IMAP or POP email system, and in fact initially touted Yahoo! email even over it’s own .Mac. The G1 also has no desktop syncing, so it’s Google’s cloud or nothing. Not sure why this isn’t mentioned much in the tech press, unless it’s because the pundits are too busy bowing to the “open” gods.

  2. You have to separate Android (the Google sponsored OS) from the Android (the HTC cellphone hardware) from Android (the
    T-Mobile cellphone service) from Android (the apps to be run in the cellphone).

    Then, we’ll see that –maybe– the OS is open. The rest? Who knows? (The most probable is that the service is the closest part)

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