Google Android chief smacks Steve Jobs with Linux speak
mkdir meaningless argument
Google Android chief Andy Rubin has responded to Steve Jobs's extended rant against Google's mobile OS, unloading a cagey tweet meant to defend claims of Android "openness."
On Monday afternoon, during a surprise appearance on Apple's quarterly earnings call, Jobs took aim at Mountain View's repeated claims that Google is "open" while Apple is "closed." The Apple cult leader dubbed such Google talk "disingenuous" and a "smokescreen" meant to hide the "real" differences between two companies' mobile platforms: Android and iOS.
His argument was a bit muddled — at one point he tried to say that Microsoft Windows is the epitome of an open operating system — but his basic point was that unlike the iPhone market, Android is inordinately "fragmented," meaning the OS takes many different forms on many different handsets.
"In reality, we think the open versus closed argument is just a smokescreen to try and hide the real argument, which is what's best for the customer. We think Android is very, very fragmented and becoming more fragmented by the day. As you know, Apple strives for the integrated model, so the user isn't forced to be the systems integrator," he said. "We see tremendous value [in the integrated model]...When selling to users who want things to just work, we believe that integrated will trump fragmented every time."
About nine hours after the Apple call, at roughly midnight Pacific time, Google's Andy Rubin posted to Twitter for the first — and, so far, only — time, answering Jobs's attack with a none-too-subtle tweet meant to rally the world's developers. It looks like this:
the definition of open: "mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git://android.git.kernel.org/platform/manifest.git ; repo sync ; make"
In others words, Rubin's definition of "open" is that you can use a command line to create a directory, download the Android source code, and build your own OS. The Android chief seems to imply that what really matters is that Android is open source while Apple's iOS is not.
It's really not much of an argument. For one thing, there are limits to the "openness" of Android's code. And though Rubin's tweet is sure to tickle the fancy of certain hardcore developers, it doesn't address the criticism leveled at Android by Apple's CEO — however muddled that criticism might be.
Yes, Android is open source — but not entirely. Google keeps certain portions of its mobile stack completely closed, including the Android app Market and applications such as Gmail and Google Maps. And it's careful to develop the latest version of the OS in private. Because certain tools are closed, Google maintains a certain amount of control over the design of handsets.
Last month, Skyhook Wireless — the Boston-based outfit that offers a service for pinpointing a mobile device's location via Wi-Fi signals — sued Google in a Massachusetts state court, accusing Google of using Android and various apps such as Google Maps to force manufacturers into using Mountain View's location technology rather than Skyhook's. According to the suit, Andy Rubin told Motorola co-CEO Sanjay Jha that if the manufacturer didn't drop Skyhook from its phones, Google would remove official Android support from the devices.
The suit specifically claims that although Google bills Android as open source, the company still maintains exclusive oversight over the platform, providing access to the Android Market only if devices met certain requirements.
But at the same time — and this gets to Jobs's point — Google does allow for a certain amount of customization atop Android. Plus, it turns out new versions of the OS in rapid fashion, and they're typically open sourced only weeks before they reach handsets. This does create a certain amount of fragmentation. The question is whether developers are willing to put up with it. Some have complained, though others don't see the problem.
As Andy Rubin misdirected the conversation with some timely command-line speak, it was left to TweetDeck CEO Iain Dodsworth to answer one of Jobs' specific argument.
During Apple's conference call, Jobs said that when TweetDeck launched its Twitter client on Android, it developed for 100 different versions of Android on 244 different handsets. He muffed the name of the company, calling it "TwitterDeck," but Jobs was unmistakably referencing a TweetDeck blog post where the company lists the myriad Android devices its client runs on.
"The multiple hardware and software iterations present developers with a daunting challenge," Jobs said. "Many Android apps work only on selected Android handsets running selected Android versions, and this is for handsets that were shipped less than 12 months ago."
The trouble is that TweetDeck's blog post didn't exactly bemoan the state of the Android market. "We were really shocked to see the number of custom roms, crazy phones and general level of customization/hackalicious nature of Android. From our perspective it's pretty cool to have our app work on such a wide variety of devices and Android OS variations," the post reads.
Then, in the wake of Jobs's rant, Iain Dodsworth tweeted that the Apple cult leader was misrepresenting the company's experience. "Did we at any point say it was a nightmare developing on Android?" Dodsworth said. "Err nope, no we didn't. It wasn't."
Then came another tweet: "We only have 2 guys developing on Android TweetDeck so that shows how small an issue fragmentation is."
Google: Fragmentation? We call it 'legacy'
In the past, Google has defended itself against the ongoing fragmentation criticism. At Google's annual developer conference in May, Andy Rubin himself said that Android fragmentation isn't fragmentation. "Some of the press has called it fragmentation, but that's probably the wrong word for it," he told reporters at Google I/O.
"The better word for it is 'legacy.' With these phones and devices, the iteration cycle is incredibly fast. It used to be that every 18 months, a new device would reach the market. But we're seeing it happen every three or four months. The software obviously has to keep up and I don't think anyone is harmed by it.
"I think everybody wants this rapid iteration."
He also pointed out that the Android app market hides applications that don't run on your particular device. "The marketplace — the store by which applications are distributed — does a really good job of pairing up the device capabilities that the user has with what's available for the device, so it's not like they'll see multiple versions of an application for the device." But this doesn't really address the potential problems facing developers.
Months earlier, Google open source guru Chris DiBona acknowledged that life can be "a little hard" for Android developers. "Sometimes, they have to adapt," he said, adding that they will adapt as long as Android has a hefty market share. "This is going to sound really cynical, but the only thing that really matters is how many of these we ship — how many Android phones. There is a linear relationship between the number of phones you ship and the number of developers."
It was a welcome moment from a company that's rarely so straightforward. Whether you agree with DiBona or not, he was at least addresses the primary issue — not tossing about meaningless claims of "openness."
It's always worth remembering that there are limits to the openness of Google's open source projects — and that other parts of the company's operation are kept preternaturally closed, including its search algorithms, the inner workings of search ad money machine, and its famously distributed backend infrastructure. Feel free to chuckle at Steve Jobs's conference call antics. But we can at least praise the man for pointing out that the word open has all but lost its meaning.
In the wake of the Jobs rant, Rubin and company would have been much better off pointing fingers at Apple's penchant for keeping certain applications and certain development platforms off the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. This too is part of Steve Jobs's master plan to offer "integrated" devices, and though this may offer certain benefits to phone buyers, there are certainly drawbacks for buyers as well. The real question, as Jobs said, is what's best for users. Not what's best for those few people who can read a command line. ®