Onlookers say that Google is in charge of Android development, despite pitching the software as a community project. But experts say that could be the only way Google can ensure that the software is actually released.
The Android development process may reflect a reality in the open-source environment, as some groups forego the community in an effort to speed commercialization.
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When Google first introduced Android, it called it a joint project by the Open Handset Alliance, a group of companies supporting the OS. "Together we have developed Android," the OHA site reads.
But in reality, the software is developed in-house at Google, partners say. "Android is open source innovation driven by Google," said Bill Maggs, head of developer and partner content and services at Sony Ericsson. "Google is largely at this point definitely driving the framework."
Motorola also acknowledged that Android is not developed in the open. "We would love a world where the development itself is closer to open," said Christy Wyatt, vice president of software applications and ecosystems at Motorola, speaking at a press event at the recent CTIA conference.
"It's absolutely Google-controlled and managed," agreed Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis.
Eric Chu, group manager of Android mobile platform at Google, said that Android has always been and continues to be an open source project, and that it's not accurate to characterize it as an initiative completely controlled by Google.
However, he acknowledged that Google faces a challenge of working with partners that want to contribute to Android while also meeting other partners' demands for commercial products. It's a constant struggle to balance how often Google releases different early access versions of the software while working on finishing versions that can ship commercially, he said.
"We think it's very important for Android to have a strong commercial focus. There are a lot of open source projects out there, but what the world cares about is open source projects that will result in commercial products," Chu said. "That's where we're putting a lot of our energy."
It's not clear if Google intended to control development from the start or if it changed its plan when faced with the realities of developing in open source.
"You don't get work done if it's totally open," Greengart said. As an example, he points to LiMo, a mobile Linux project. "LiMo is 100 percent multisource. So much so that the first-generation devices are incompatible," he said.
"That's where controlling the development process and having a developer with clout both in terms of money and brand to say, 'This is the way we're doing it, either live with it or go away,' is actually valuable," he said. "To an extent, it ensures there's something usable."
Another analyst said Google's Android experience reflects a trend. "It is representative of an evolution, or maturation of the open-source model," said Brian Prentice, an analyst with Gartner. Projects like Linux were created through broad and active community participation, he said. "But what we're starting to see is that a single dominant committer is just as viable a model for open source."