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4/7/2011
09:58 AM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
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Google Insists Android Is Open

Andy Rubin, a Google executive, said Android is still as "open" as ever and there is no change in the company's strategy regarding the operating system.

A report from several weeks ago regarding the availability of Android 3.0 Honeycomb's source code has sparked a debate about just how open Google's mobile platform really is. The general impression many people have is that Google is acting somewhat more controlling and not in the spirit it used to regarding the availability of code. Bollocks, said Andy Rubin, Google's vice president of engineering.

On Wednesday, Rubin published a blog in an attempt to clear the air on what he calls a lot of "misinformation . . . about Android and Google's role in supporting the ecosystem."

In short, he said Google feels exactly the same way about "fostering the development of an open platform" that it did when the platform first launched in 2008. Rubin noted that Android's success is unparalleled, and the number of devices and form factors on which Android is running has "amazed" him. He agreed that a single Android experience and/or device is not the way this whole thing is supposed to work.

"As always, device makers are free to modify Android to customize any range of features for Android devices," he said. "This enables device makers to support the unique and differentiating functionality of their products." That doesn't mean Google is ignoring a base level of compatibility across the platform. There are definitely some requirements that Android devices need to meet if they are going to run Google's own Android applications, as well as the thousands of applications developed by others.

To that end, device makers and Open Handset Alliance members have had to agree to keep a few fundamentals the same to prevent the platform from fragmenting. "Our 'anti-fragmentation' program has been in place since Android 1.0 and remains a priority for us to provide a great user experience for consumers and a consistent platform for developers," he said. "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."

This policy is what allows companies such as HTC and Samsung to install their Sense and TouchWiz user interfaces, respectively, on Android handsets. It also means that Google isn't partnering with any particular component suppliers when it comes to what hardware Android will operate on successfully.

Last, Rubin reiterates that the reason it hasn't offered up the Honeycomb source code is because it simply isn't ready yet. "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. This temporary delay does not represent a change in strategy. We remain firmly committed to providing Android as an open source platform across many device types."

This echoes comments made by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who said during his keynote at the Mobile World Congress event in February that the company was looking to bring Honeycomb features to handsets.

There is, however, a difference.

Schmidt said that the new features introduced in Honeycomb wouldn't be available to phones until the "I" version of Android -- thought to be Ice Cream -- is ready. The discrepancy leads me to wonder if Google will ever release Honeycomb as it is today, or if it will continue to work on it and then release Ice Cream for both tablets and phones at the same time. Google could certainly be more specific on the matter, but hasn't.

Whether you believe Rubin's thoughts or not is up to you. Right now, Honeycomb isn't available to (most) developers for tweaking -- and it shows given the complete lack of Honeycomb-optimized software in the Android Market. Until more developers and more hardware companies get their hands on Honeycomb, Google and Android will be labeled (fairly or not) as closed.

Hopefully Google will alleviate all these concerns at its I/O developer conference, scheduled for early May.


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