Google has been drawing a lot of flack, especially in the free and open software community (FOSS), for its decision to delay indefinitely the release of source code for the latest version of Android. “That means that Honeycomb is not FOSS, it is closed, non-free, and available only to licensees under a shared-source style license,” wrote open source blogger Adam Drew. “This is heartbreaking news. It also sets a dangerous precedent.”
While I understand the outrage, which has been growing as developers and other realized that the Android process was far less open than, say, Linux, I think Google has a good case for holding back on the source code release. With past versions, Google has released Android source to all comers at the same time that it released a version to licensed manufacturers. This meant that anyone could use it, although only licensees had access to certain features, most significantly the Android Market for apps.
For Google, however, the issue is one of quality control. The company already has a lot of experience with unlicensed (and sometimes licensed) OEMs building horrible tablets and smartbooks using versions of Android intended for phones. The only Honeycomb (Android 3.0) tablet actually shipping, Motorola’s Xoom, has a three-quarters-baked feel with some very buggy software. And the software is designed only for tablets and not optimized for handsets. But once the source code is out, Google loses control over how it is used.
“To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs,” Andy Rubin, Google’s Android chief told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.. “We didn’t want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut.”
Android has been a fabulous success in the marketplace. But the user experience of Android phones and tablets still lags far behind Apple offerings. Google has reason to worry about a bunch of really bad Honeycomb products coming to market. And the only way it can stop that, at least for the time being, is to hang on to the source code.
The open-source nature of Android has distinguished it from all its competitors (except the dying Symbian) and I hope tat the Honeycomb code will be available before too much longer. But Google has good and sufficient reason to hold off for now.