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Googlola's closed source Android temptation

Will the code 'stay' open?

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications

Open...and Shut Google has long played Android a bit closer to the vest than some would like.

Over the years it has taken a beating from open-source advocates and others, most recently resulting in a study declaring it to be the most closed of any open-source mobile platform, a claim that Google's Chris DiBona calls nonsense, indicating that more than 10 million lines of Android code under an open-source license says otherwise.

But with its Motorola Mobility acquisition Google's open source balancing act just got a lot harder. Google will have every temptation to close off Android in an attempt to out-Apple Apple.

The spirit is willing, but will the flesh be too weak?

It's a very real question, given the increased latitude a serious hardware business - second only to HTC in the Android ecosystem - gives Google. As TechCrunch's Greg Kumparak points out, Google can now effectively force updates to the latest Android releases, reduce Android "skin" fragmentation, and also drive hardware standardization.

It all sounds good for Android, but it also means taking a heavier hand with the ecosystem that has grown up around Android. After all, there's a tremendous amount at stake. As a new Bluewolf report indicates, mobile is upending and reshaping entire industries. Google, which is much more of an advertising company than a software or hardware company, can't afford to not be at the center of these tectonic shifts. Which may mean tightly coupling Android with Motorola Mobility hardware, to the point that the open source nature of the Android code won't matter, given that the overall integration is so closed.

Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, calls this out in a response to DiBona, arguing that "open source is not the same thing as open," and also requires open development and open governance to make its openness meaningful.

So when Google insists "Android will stay open," many would suggest that "stay" is the wrong verb, given that its process is already somewhat closed. Owning both hardware and software only compounds this process problem.

One downside to all this, as former Mozilla CEO and current Greylock Partners investor John Lilly speculates, is that the gradual closing of Android will "move cynicism on corporate open source efforts up one more notch."

In other words, just because something starts open doesn't guarantee it will end open, and would-be open source buyers and participants may refrain from getting involved for fear that a given open-source project will just go closed when it starts to get interesting.

All of which is not to say that Google has not done the right thing by buying Motorola Mobility and its hardware assets, but rather to suggest that the temptation to close off the Android process has grown by leaps and bounds with this acquisition. Not because Google is evil, but rather because it wants to win, and if winning means tight integration of hardware and software to the point that Android's open source nature is obviated…even Google may not be able to withstand that temptation.

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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