Google 'clamps down' on world of Android partners

When open means all changes must be approved by Google

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Google has not only decided to keep the Android Honeycomb source code closed for the foreseeable future, preventing all but a few select partners from using the latest version of its mobile OS, it has also clamped down even harder on those select partners, telling them they can't make changes to the platform or form partnerships of their own without the approval of head Android man Andy Rubin, according to a report citing close to a dozen executives with knowledge of the situation.

The report, from Bloomberg Businessweek, says that Google has come down particularly hard on companies that wish to offer Androids devices with proprietary Google services such as Google search and Google Maps. In other words, if they don't play by Google's rules, they can't bundle such services. According to the report, Google has also tried to prevent partners from bundling rival services such as Microsoft's Bing search.

Google declined to comment on the story.

Bloomberg says that Google's clampdown affects big-name partners such as LG, Toshiba, Samsung, and – wait for it – Facebook. Previously, Facebook has denied that it's developing a phone, but apparently, it's trying to build some sort of Android device, and Bloomberg says it's a smartphone.

But the point here is that Google is playing favorites. It has always done so, but it's clear that the company has now gone several steps further. Google is demanding that Android licensees adhere to "non-fragmentation clauses" that give Google the right of refusal on changes to the Android interface, the use of services atop the platform, and, in some cases, who manufacturers and carriers can partner with. Citing two people familiar with the matter, Bloomberg says that Google has tried to hold up the release of Verizon Android devices that use Microsoft Bing.

According to Bloomberg sources, such moves have prompted antitrust complaints to the US Department of Justice.

When Google first announced that it was building Android in the fall of 2007, the company billed it as an open source operating system. But the initial version was developed entirely behind closed doors, and Google didn't open source the code until the first device was released. Subsequent updates have followed a similar pattern. Select partners are given the closed source code, and the code isn't open sourced until around the time the first devices are released.

This gives certain partners a head start on everyone else – and Google tends to choose different lead partners for each release. With the first version of Android, Qualcomm was the chip partner and HTC was the device partner. With Android Honeycomb – designed specifically for tablets – Nvidia was the chip partner and Motorola was device partner. The setup has created a situation in which these big name companies must abide by Google's rules if they want to maintain this sort of preferred status, which gives them an oh-so-valuable head start on other companies in the market. The newest phones sell the best.

But Google has additional leverage. Parts of the Android platform are not open source, including the Android Market and services such as Gmail and Google Maps. And Google retains control of the Android trademark. If you want a true Android phone, you have to play under Google's rules as well.

This past fall, Skyhook Wireless – a Boston-based outfit that offers a service for pinpointing a mobile device's location via Wi-Fi and cell-tower signals – hit Google with a pair of lawsuits, and as Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan told us recently, one of the suits shows that although Google bills Android as open, it's not.

Filed in Massachusetts state court, the suit accuses Google of using Android to force handset manufacturers into using Google's location tech rather than Skyhook's. According to the suit, Google head Android man Andy Rubin told Motorola co-CEO Sanjay Jha that if Motorola handsets did not drop Skyhook, Google would yank official Android support from the handsets.

What's more, Google has now indefinitely delayed the open sourcing of Honeycomb, preventing anyone outside a small group of partners from getting started on new devices.

Google says it this merely because Honeycomb isn't suited to phones yet. "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."

But whatever the reason for delaying the open sourcing, the effect is the same: the world does not have access to the code.

What makes Google's behavior so troubling is that it has gone to great lengths to paint Android as an open platform. Last year, at the company's annual developer conference, Google vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra said that Mountain View developed Android in an effort to avoid "a Draconian future, a future where one man, one company, one device, and one carrier would be our only choice," a clear reference to Apple and Steve Job. As he spoke, an image appeared on the wall behind him that read "Not a Future We Want. 1984", re-spinning the famous Apple television ad that announced the original Macintosh.

This fall, on an Apple earnings call, Steve Jobs called Google's open talk "disingenuous", and Andy Rubin soon responded with a tweet that read:

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

The implication was that Android is open because you create a directory from a command line, download the Android source code, and build your own OS. But such posturing moves into the realm of the ridiculous when you consider Google's decision to keep Honeycomb closed.

As Bloomberg points out, Google's methods are in stark contrast to the way that, say, Microsoft handles new OS releases on the desktop. The source code is closed but it treats all partners equally. Everyone gets to release Windows machines at the same time. Who's more open? We're not going to answer that. The problem is that Google is claiming that it's far more open than everyone else, when the facts paint a very different picture. ®

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