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Google Tightening Control Over Android as Fragmentation Increases



One of the major talking points long used by Google in support of its Android smartphone operating system over iOS is its “open” nature that has allowed handset manufacturers and others to tweak and customize the software for their needs. Apple CEO Steve Jobs has argued that the “open” nature would more accurately be described as “fragmented” in justifying why he believes that Apple’s “closed” or “integrated” iOS is a better platform for consumers.

Google executive Andy Rubin responded to Jobs’ comments last October by using his first ever Tweet to define “open” as the code needed to get the Android source code installed and ready for use by anyone interested in it.

But as Android’s popularity has taken off and the number of manufacturers and devices utilizing it has exploded, Google has begun tightening its control over the operating system, perhaps recognizing that a purely open system might in fact not be best for consumers and looking to exert its influence over how Android is presented to and behaves for users.

Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Google has decided to hold back from releasing the source code for its new “Honeycomb” version of Android to the public, claiming that the code is not yet ready for public tweaking given corners that needed to be cut to bring it to market to compete with the iPad.

“To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs,” says Andy Rubin, vice-president for engineering at Google and head of its Android group. “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.”

Rubin says that if Google were to open-source the Honeycomb code now, as it has with other versions of Android at similar periods in their development, it couldn’t prevent developers from putting the software on phones “and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones.”

Still, Rubin argued that Google has not changed its philosophy about Android being an open source project.

Bloomberg Businessweek continued digging into the situation, however, and yesterday published a report outlining how Google has in fact been taking new steps to crack down on how Android is being deployed, moves that have angered some hardware manufacturers.

Playtime is over in Android Land. Over the last couple of months Google (GOOG) has reached out to the major carriers and device makers backing its mobile operating system with a message: 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. And they will seek that approval from Andy Rubin, the head of Google’s Android group.

According to the report, Google has been increasing enforcement of “non-fragmentation clauses” in recent months, requiring partners to submit their plans to Google for final say on their implementation. The policies have ruffled some feathers in the industry, including at Facebook and Verizon, where tweaked versions of Android have been under development. Google’s actions have sparked a few complaints to the U.S. Department of Justice, although it is unclear whether there is any momentum for a coordinated push back from manufacturers or regulators.