Proof Android is not open source -- and why that's good

Google tapped into the open source community only to regret it later and muddied the Android platform. That can all end now

Since its introduction in fall 2008, Android has been positioned as an open source OS that would take the best of the community and reinvent mobile computing. Well, Android certainly has emerged as a powerhouse mobile OS, accounting for the majority of smatrtphone sales for months now. But it's not open source.

Google has finally acknowledged that its characterization of Android is false, although it continues to claim that open source nature on its website. How? Google complained this week that Microsoft had no right to show the Android source code to an expert witness in one of those many patent battles being waged on the mobile front. If the Android code were in fact open source, there could be no such restriction on showing the code -- it would be available to anyone. That's what open source means.

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The truth is that parts of Android are open source and other parts are not. There's nothing wrong with that -- in fact, it's extremely common these days in software development, a testament to the positive attributes of open source.

In its early Android days, Google appeared to be sincere about its open source claims and ambitions, driven by the enthusiastic, trusting nature of youth. However, over time, Google has begun to close parts of Android to better compete with Apple's iOS as the dark side of open source -- conflicting directions and unstoppable sloppiness -- began to appear. The open source nature of Android was leading to inconsistencies in user experience that hurt the platform, whereas Apple's sharp focus made each rev of iOS better and consistent across the platform. In comparison, Android looked like a failed state in the making, sort of a mobile version of Yugoslavia after Tito -- OK, not that bad, but the direction was not good.

It's hard for believers to accept that open source brings with it difficulties, but look at the consistent failure of the other open source mobile platforms -- Moblin, Maemo, and MeeGo -- that all devolved into grad-student-like thought experiments and personal pet projects. Users don't want that, and ultimately products are sold to users. If you look at the most successful open source efforts -- Linus Torvalds's Linux comes to mind -- it takes strong leadership to steer and sometimes override the community for the greater good. It's not a pure democracy, at least not if it works. Google doesn't seem to have a Torvalds to manage Android effectively in a pure open source environment.

Google's quietly been doing the next best thing: taking parts of Android back in house to develop them purposefully and deeply. It says it will release that work into the open source community at some point, but that's just politicking; by the time it does so (if it does), those attributes will be solidly entrenched and not likely to be messed with.

As Google has asserted more control over Android, it's improved. The Android 3.x "Honeycomb" OS for tablets provides the best competition to Apple's iPad, and the Android 2.2 "Froyo" and later smartphone OSes started becoming more consistent and not so coincidentally rocketed in consumer adoption. There are still issues with vendors screwing up Android through their own changes (such as the bug in the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1's Android version that prevents it from connecting to some email servers that work just fine on, say, a Motorola Mobility Xoom), but Android is much more solid a platform now than even a year ago.

That's all a good thing for users, Google, and Android.

This article, "Proof Android is not open source -- and why that's good," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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