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Steve Jobs vindicated: Google Android is not open

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If you needed further proof that Android is not an "open platform", Google just supplied it. On Thursday, the company said that as its select partners release the first tablets based on Android "Honeycomb" – the latest version of its mobile operating system – it will not open source the Honeycomb code.

As first reported by Bloomberg Businessweek, Google will delay the distribution of Honeycomb for the foreseeable future. Asked to confirm the story, Google did.

"Android 3.0, Honeycomb, was designed from the ground up for devices with larger screen sizes and improves on Android favorites such as widgets, multi-tasking, browsing, notifications and customization," a company spokesman told us. "While we’re excited to offer these new features to Android tablets, we have more work to do before we can deliver them to other device types including phones. Until then, we’ve decided not to release Honeycomb to open source."

Speaking with Bloomberg, Google's Andy Rubin, who oversees the Android project, made similar noises. "To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs," he said. "We didn't want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut."

But the reality is surely that Google and its partners don't want smaller name manufacturers eating into their tablet sales. Or perhaps they don't want larger names nabbing pieces of code for their own tablet OSes.

Google partner Motorola has already released its Honeycomb-based tablet, the Xoom, and other manufactures are working on Honeycomb tablets of their own, including Samsung, Dell, HTC, and Acer.

Google has always billed Android as an open source operating system, but the latest version has always been developed behind closed doors. And even when the new version is open sourced, some pieces of the platform – including the Google Android Marketplace and app like Google Maps – remain proprietary. Google also maintains control over the Android trademark.

In the end, this means manufacturers can't build true Android devices unless they play by Google's rules.

In September, the Boston-based Skyhook – which offers a service for pinpointing a mobile device's location via Wi-Fi signals – launched a pair of lawsuits against Google, and as company CEO Skyhook boss Ted Morgan told us late last week, one suit shows that although Google bills Android as open, it's really not.

The suit, filed in Massachusetts state court, accuses Google of using its Android mobile operating system to strong-arm handset manufacturers into using Google's location technology rather than Skyhook's. According to the suit, Andy Rubin – who oversees Google's Android project – told Motorola co-CEO Sanjay Jha that if Motorola handsets didn't drop Skyhook, Google would remove official Android support from the devices. This would mean that Motorola could not use proprietary Google services such as the Android Market or the Android name.

Now, with Honeycomb, Google has gone a step further. With previous versions of the OS, Google typically released code to open source within a few weeks of the arrival of the first device. Members of Google's Open Handset Alliance – the ostensible designers of Android – have access to the Honeycomb, and others can get access if they contact the company's business team and sign a private agreement.

Google had told The Register in the past that Honeycomb would only serve tablets, and it has indicated that it will introduce a similar version for phones as well. But there was no indication that the code wouldn't be promptly open sourced as the first devices were released. What's more, Google did not make a public announcement that it will keep the source closed. The news was broken by Businessweek.

In October, when Steve Jobs publicly called Google's claims of openness "disingenuous", Android chief Andy Rubin responded with the first tweet of his life:

the definition of open: "mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git://android.git.kernel.org/platform/manifest.git ; repo sync ; make"

In other words, Rubin says open means that you can use a command line to create a directory, download the Android source code, and build your own OS.

By that definition, Honeycomb is not open. Sometimes, Steve Jobs is exactly right. ®

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