Google Cracks Down, Tightens Up Android

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Google is reportedly taking drastic measures to keep Android phone makers in line, which is either good or bad news depending on how you look at it.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Google will withhold the latest versions of Android from phone makers who don’t play by the company’s rules. “There will be no more willy-nilly tweaks to the software,” Ashlee Vance and Peter Burrows wrote. “No more partnerships formed outside of Google’s purview.”

They’re alluding to things like the partnership between Verizon Wireless and Microsoft, which made Bing the default search engine in Samsung’s Fascinate, and custom user interfaces such as HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Motoblur and Samsung’s TouchWiz. It’s not clear to what extent Google will crack down on Android modifications — Bloomberg Businessweek‘s story is based on grumblings from about a dozen anonymous executives who work in the Android ecosystem — but the days of Google letting companies do what they please with Android may be coming to an end.

Tighter controls on Android will bring benefits to consumers. Android has a fragmentation problem, because wireless carriers and phone makers are slow to update their handsets to the latest version of Android. According to Google’s statistics, nearly two thirds of Android devices that have accessed the Android Market in the last two weeks are running version 2.2, which was released last June. Only 0.7 percent are running Android 2.3, the latest version of the smartphone OS. All other phones are running older versions of the software, which miss out on new features such as voice actions. The fragmentation also causes headaches for app developers, who must decide whether their software should run on older phones.

But Google’s crackdown on software tweaks upsets phone makers, who worry that they won’t be able to differentiate their handsets from the competition (I’m not on board with this argument. I’ll take a pure Android phone with awesome hardware over some decent software modification any day). It could also put a damper on innovative Android-based phones. Bloomberg Businessweek says that rumors of a Facebook phone are accurate, but that the social network isn’t happy about being subject to a review from Google.

There’s also a philosophical issue at work. Google likes to say that Android is open, referring to the fact that the company makes Android’s source code publicly available. The more restrictions Google places on Android, the more closed the software becomes. In a sense, it’s an admission that Apple isn’t wrong about everything.