Google has finally gotten fed up with the humiliating alterations its Android operating system has been subjected to by wireless carriers. So says a Bloomberg Businessweek story by Ashlee Vance and Peter Burrows that reports on a new set of rules Google will enforce on mobile partners who want the equivalent of most-favored-nation status.
“There will be no more willy-nilly tweaks to the software. No more partnerships formed outside of Google’s purview. From now on, companies hoping to receive early access to Google’s most up-to-date software will need approval of their plans.”
The story reported that the Mountain View, Calif., company was requiring that other firms licensing its Linux-based operating system sign “non-fragmentation clauses” to grant it veto power over their tweaks to the operating system.
Having seen many of these tweaks -- from harmless but sometimes unappreciated alterations such as Samsung and HTC’s TouchWiz and Sense overlays to outright mutilations of Android, such as Verizon’s excruciating Samsung Fascinate, which hard-wired its search button to Microsoft’s Bing -- I have no problem with Google’s change of heart.
The users I hear from don’t want any more extras from those companies. As Windows PC buyers have said for years, they want to be able to choose a clean, uncluttered configuration of the standard operating system. That’s what I loved about the Nexus S phone I reviewed late last year. And that’s why some Android users, myself included, have taken the radical step of installing a third-party build of Android to replace the limited, carrier-installed version.
This is a risk I worried about when Google announced Android. My column at the time emphasized the benefits of Android’s openness to users but fretted that carriers “could always choose to revise it to lock out any tinkering by their customers.”
It’s true that Google promised something different at Android’s launch. Its Nov. 5, 2007, press release states that “the Android platform will be made available under one of the most progressive, developer-friendly open-source licenses, which gives mobile operators and device manufacturers significant freedom and flexibility to design products.”
But Google has always had one constraint on the carriers: access to its Android Market. Until now, it’s been extraordinarily lenient with that authority, even allowing them to replace such core Android programs as its browser, calendar and contacts applications with their own.
(Manufacturers can opt out of the Android Market, resulting in such oddities as the no-name Android tablets that arrived in stores last fall with older versions of the operating system and no easy way to install add-on software.)
It cannot possibly be a surprise if Google now moves to exploit that limited leverage to fix problems with its product. So why the vitriol over this move?
In a scathing post linking to a Businessweek story, influential tech blogger John Gruber labeled Google’s change in strategy “the Android bait-and-switch laid bare” and called Android manager Andy Rubin, engineering vice president Vic Gundotra and departing chief executive Eric Schmidt “shameless, lying hypocrites.”
I understand the annoyance at a company professing a “don’t be evil” motto, in the way that some people gripe about Apple’s bouts of sanctimoniousness. But just like Apple, Google is a publicly-traded, for-profit corporation--not a monastery, a think tank or a nonprofit like Mozilla. (For that matter, many open-source licenses enforce some limits on what you can do with the code in question. It’s rarely a free-for-all.)
I don’t need conspiracy theories here. I find it a lot easier to think that Google, not for the first time, didn’t grasp what sort of companies it was dealing with when it waltzed into this market. Remember, these are the people who had no apparent idea that Google TV would get blocked from the Web sites of major TV networks. If it’s now acting like a red-blooded capitalist instead of a software evangelist--fine.
Cracking down on carriers who want early access to the Android source code seems not an injustice but the only rational response for Google if it wants to keep Android’s quality. Save your outrage if Google stops releasing Android source code at all--for example, if the current hold in releasing the source for the Honeycomb, tablet-optimized version of Android never ends--or if it follows the practice of AT&T and blocks you from installing Android programs outside of the Android Market. But unless you believe in a cartoon vision of “open” when it comes to mobile-phone software, there’s little cause to protest Google’s move and more than a few reasons to support it.