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Google admits Android 'both open and closed'

Roll over Gene Amdahl

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Google Android boss Andy Rubin sees himself as a latter-day Gene Amdahl, insisting that anyone who questions his commitment to building an "open" mobile platform is merely spreading FUD.

"Recently, there’s been a lot of misinformation in the press about Android and Google’s role in supporting the ecosystem. I’m writing in the spirit of transparency and in an attempt to set the record straight," Rubin wrote on Google's Android blog late last week, responding a recent avalanche of stories suggesting the company was restricting the so-called openness of his platform. "We’ve remained committed to fostering the development of an open platform for the mobile industry and beyond."

You may have chuckled at that very earnest talk of "the spirit of transparency", but Rubin's claims of martyrdom by FUD are more amusing than you might think. If Rubin is Gene Amdahl, the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt is coming not only from Google's own partners, but from Google itself.

In the latest issue of the IEEE Computing Society's Computing Now – a collection of clips from the society's peer-reviewed magazines and journals – Google engineering directors Alberto Savoia and Patrick Copeland have no qualms with telling the world that Android is "both open and closed".

"Google has many projects that follow either the open or closed model, and others that do not cleanly fit either stereotype. Android and Chrome OS are examples of permeable interfaces between Google and the outside community, and would be defined as open on the surface," the pair explain. "However, both projects periodically 'go dark' on the community to surprise the market. In a sense, they are both open and closed depending on business needs at any given time."

Such a description of Android is hardly surprising – until you consider it comes from Google itself. Though Google has always billed Android as an open source platform, the company inevitably builds the latest version of the mobile OS behind closed doors, waiting to open source the code until after the first partner devices are ready for market.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek – citing "about a dozen" Google partners – this setup has created a situation in which device makers and wireless providers are forced to play by Google's rules in order to receive the early closed source version of the software. In recent months, the magazine says, Google has "clamped down" even harder on Android designs, so much so that some partners have made antitrust complaints to the Department of Justice.

Separately, Skyhook Wireless – a Boston-based outfit that offers a service for pinpointing a mobile device's location via Wi-Fi and cell-tower signals – has hit Google with a lawsuit claiming that Android isn't as open as Google says. The suit accuses Mountain View of using Android to force handset manufacturers into using Google's location technology rather than Skyhook's. According to the suit, Andy Rubin told Motorola co-CEO Sanjay Jha that if Motorola handsets did not drop Skyhook, Google would pull official Android support from the devices.

But the big news is that although Motorola has released the first device based on Android Honeycomb – the first version of the OS built specifically for tablets – Google has not open sourced the code. The company has "gone dark" in a way it has never gone dark before. Anyone outside of Google's closest partners cannot build a Honeycomb tablet or use Honeycomb code with any other device.

Rubin says that Google isn't open sourcing the tablet-centric platform because it's not yet ready for phones. But surely, it could have open sourced the code anyway. Google never had any qualms with releasing phone-centric Android code that anyone could squeeze onto a tablet. Why not release a tablet-centric version that anyone could attempt to squeeze onto a phone? "Android is open source," was a common refrain from the company when discussing the Apache-licensed project. "You can do whatever you want with it."

Many have leapt to Google's defense. Claims of openness are easily defended. Some have even been known to defend Apple's claims of openness. Without batting an eyelash. But surely, whether the word "open" has any meaning left or not, it's difficult to deny that even Google admits that Android is both open and closed.

The more intriguing bit is that Savoia and Copeland say the same thing about Chrome OS. Technically, unlike Android, the main Chromium OS source tree is completely public. In theory, anyone can contribute patches at any time to the latest version of the OS. Google director of product management Caesar Sengupta has told us that in some cases even he has been surprised to see certain patches show up in the OS code. But even in this situation, Savoia and Copeland seem to be saying, a company can hold back new code. Google can "surprise the market" whenever it likes, augmenting Chrome OS with code you won't find in Chromium OS.

This is Google's prerogative. And the company has every right to restrict what its Android partners can and can't do. But we reserve the right to roll our eyes when Andy Rubin plays the martyr. ®

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