Android’s Open Problem

Two months ago I railed against the Samsung for shipping a soon-to-be obsolete Galaxy Tab with a version of Android not designed for Tablets despite Google advising manufacturers to wait for 3.0.

Five months before that, I wrote about how Verizon Android phones coming preinstalled with Bing revealed a gap in Google’s strategy. These two topics both relate to problems with Google positioning Android’s as totally open. The earlier post concluded with:

Google would have very little recourse since it already charges nothing and enforcing some sort of Google Apps requirement would alienate it’s core customers (manufactures/carriers) as well as be a PR mess after selling Android as an open platform.

This is the predicament Google is in. Any effort to exert control over Android by Google will remain toothless and unenforceable unless they directly contradict their “Open” mantra. The problem has recently been made apparent with reports that Google has been requiring Andy Rubin’s blessing for early access to code as well as 3.0s half-baked source code being withheld from the community. Just as predicted this has lead to some bad PR and community backlash. That said, the negative response has been tempered by two realities: Google is a media darling and most Android advocates realize their platform would benefit from greater Google driven standardization, lest Android turn into something like this.

I suspect these two events are indicative of Google’s strategy to exert control over it’s ever fragmenting OS. Up until now handset makers haven’t had incentive to provide the latest Android version because most consumers haven’t noticed enhancements introduced by the various 2.x releases, especially when said changes have been buried under the plethora of custom interfaces. Honeycomb, on the other hand, is gearing up to be a major release for handsets with highly visible interface and feature enhancements. A must-have Honeycomb would make early access a necessity for manufacturers to stay competitive and provide Google the leverage needed to stem fragmentation, limit UI customizations, and protect their interests.

The only problem with this solution is that handset makers don’t see Android as a platform as much as they see it as a feature. As such they are slow to update and tend to obfuscate rather than advertise specific Android versions. They don’t care about having the latest and greatest Android so why would they care about having early access to future releases, especially if that access has strings attached. If manufacturers opt for continue free reign, withholding code may actually result in even longer release turnaround and even more fragmentation. Even if Google is able to get manufacturers onboard with Honeycomb, what’s to stop them from jumping ship with subsequent non-major releases?

Google has to walk a thin line over the next couple of months. Without any control, Android will further fragment, but too much control will alienate partners used to being pampered.