The man behind Android, Google’s Andy Rubin, has taken to one of his company’s blogs to “attempt to set the record straight” as it pertains to “a lot of misinformation in the press about Android and Google’s role in supporting the ecosystem.”
The so-called misinformation that Rubin is believed to be addressing comes from a March 30th article on Businessweek.com arguing that Google “gives chip and device makers that abide by its rules a head start in bringing Android products to market,” according to Businessweek’s sources.
The crux of Businessweek’s argument is that even though Google’s Android mobile operating system has always been positioned as an “open” platform—meaning that device makers and wireless companies are free to tweak the stock Android interface and add their own programs—this openness has led to fragmentation of the platform, and Google’s just now aiming to crack down on Android fragmentation.
For example, when it comes to the Android interface, you’ll often have a markedly different experience from each big-name device manufacturer. Samsung has its own “TouchWiz” interface, HTC uses its “Sense” interface, and Motorola has its “MotoBlur” interface, to name a few. Carriers get involved, too, with Verizon replacing the stock Google search on some Android devices with Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
When Google comes out with an updated version of the Android software, it can take months for these companies and carriers to update their devices because they need to be sure that their customized interfaces will play nicely with Android’s new features. There are also theories that carriers may hold updates back on purpose to entice people to upgrade to newer phones with the updated software preloaded on them.
So that’s fragmentation in a nutshell. It’s not really good for consumers or Google, though device makers would likely argue that their “enhanced” interfaces provide better experiences for users. Most people would rather have the newest Android software and features, though, and Google would certainly like to get the newest versions of its software out quickly.
As such, Google has taken to partnering with certain manufacturers to build showcase devices running the stock Android interface—no changes, no tweaks, just pure Android. HTC built the Nexus One phone, Samsung built the Nexus S and, most recently, Motorola built the Xoom tablet.
These time-limited partnerships are hugely beneficial to manufacturers, as they get to have the newest Android version running on their hardware before anyone else. That means more press coverage and, if the device is decent, a nice head start on sales while all the other manufacturers scramble to get the new software working on their own devices.
Businessweek contends that in an effort to prevent fragmentation, “Google has recently tightened its policies” and that “from now on, companies hoping to receive early access to Google’s most up-to-date software will need approval of their plans. And they will seek that approval from Andy Rubin, the head of Google’s Android group.” In other words, if you want the latest version of Android on your device, you now have to go through Google first. That’s not exactly “open” as Android claims to be.
Rubin has responded, defending the open nature of Android and saying that Google has had an “anti-fragmentation” program at work since Android was announced back in 2007. He doesn’t outright deny Businessweek’s claim that he will need to approve the plans of device manufacturers that want early access to new Android software, but instead says the following:
“Our approach remains unchanged: there are no lock-downs or restrictions against customizing UIs. There are not, and never have been, any efforts to standardize the platform on any single chipset architecture.”
Rubin likens the “misinformation in the press” to the concept of “FUD” (fear, uncertainty and doubt) coined by former IBM employee Gene Amdahl back in 1975, who claimed that IBM sales people used “FUD” to scare potential customers away from using software made by Amdahl’s own company.
Google has also recently faced criticism from the Android developer community for not yet releasing the underlying source code for the new tablet software, Android 3.0 Honeycomb.
Google has historically released source code for new Android versions on or before the day it’s publicly available to consumers, but the Motorola Xoom tablet that’s been on the market for a while now shipped without Google having released the Honeycomb source code. Rubin and Google contend that once the Honeycomb software has been made compatible on smartphones—not just tablets—they’ll release its source code.
“As I write this the Android team is still hard at work to bring all the new Honeycomb features to phones. As soon as this work is completed, we’ll publish the code,” says Rubin in his blog post.
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