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Devs still frozen out of Android ice cream source

Code release by end of the year?

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Google's Ice Cream Sandwich has been served, and it looks destined to give live-free-or-die open sourcers continued indigestion for now at least.

Android 4.0, as it's officially known, was announced this week boasting updates and features intended to make life easier for developers and more social for phone users.

For developers, there's a single set of UI components to make it easier to put Android on phones, tablets and other devices. On the user side, there's a new social and calendar APIs, Android Beam for wireless NFC-based instant sharing, and Wi-Fi Direct support.

There's absolutely no sign, however, of Google releasing the Ice Cream Sandwich code.

When asked on Google Groups when the full source code to Ice Cream Sandwich would be released, Google engineer Jean-Baptiste Queru – who had announced Android 4.0 – dodged. "At the moment I don't have anything to say on that subject," Queru said. Android developer Dan Morrill posted here that the source would be released "soon" once Ice Cream Sandwich is available on devices.

"We plan to release the source for the recently announced Ice Cream Sandwich soon, once it’s available on devices," Morrill wrote.

As an engineer Queru might be unwilling to, effectively, pre-announce strategy. Morrill, on the other hand, has given an indication of what Google bosses are mulling, but it seems to be a rather loose definition of "soon" because it's not clear what number of devices and from which makers the source-code release depends on.

Either way, we're still waiting for the other foot to drop on the commitment to free Ice Cream Sandwich code.

Google stopped releasing the Android source code with the tablet-centric release called Honeycomb in Spring. But Google did not explicitly announce the change in policy, and once the change was discovered, Google's head of Android development Andy Rubin promised Honeycomb would be "remerged" with the Android phone OS with Ice Cream Sandwich.

"So Ice Cream will be the next open source release and that will be towards the end of the year," Rubin told press at Google's I/O developer even in San Francisco, California, in May.

The decision to pull back Android didn't just upset open sourcers who'd placed their faith in Android and beatified its maker Google as the saviour of an open phone system against Apple. It later upset Android handset makers, once Google announced it was buying Motorola's mobility unit – presumably conferring first-mover advantage on Motorola in terms of who gets to work with early versions of Android code and get access to future releases.

The Free Software Foundation sees Android as both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, it is a success for the Linux kernel (which sits at the heart of the Android OS) as a whole; on the negative side it "isn't free". The FSF tells us its beef is the fact that human-readable source code for "some" versions of Android was not released rather than the fact parts of Android are licensed under an Apache license instead of the GPL that it's founder created.

"Software where the user does not have the source code is not free software," FSF executive director John Sullivan told us. "We recommend use of that license [Apache] under some circumstances, and consider it to be a valid free software license." FSF founder Richard Sallman summarized in The Guardian last month: "Even though the Android phones of today are considerably less bad than Apple or Windows smartphones, they cannot be said to respect your freedom."

Google's continued control over the source code will likely re-affirm FSF's mixed view of Android. ®

This article has been updated to clarify the FSF's position on Android and the Apache license.

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