Android, openness and missing the point

So, the penny has dropped and Google has decided that some sorts of ‘open’ are more open than others. Stephen Elop must be feeling happy.

By first withholding, indefinitely, access to the source code for Honeycomb, and now, it appears, trying to take control (Businessweek story) of how manufacturers can use Android on handsets, Google is trying to prevent the sort of fragmentation that half the people at MWC were in favour of. 

This isn’t an academic issue. Amongst the ideas being pitched in MWC, I heard: 

  • Redirect all video traffic through an operator’s transcoding gateway
  • Replace the address book with an operator synching address book
  • Replace search with Bing (already done by Verizon, of course)
  • Delete the GMail app
  • Pre-install an un-removable blacklist system that would block, say, Skype or Google Voice
  • Remove the Android Market app store and replace with a white label one
  • Embed Facebook in the messaging and address book

And the obvious: sell the chance to preload apps, trials, links to shops and movie trailers (none of which the user can delete).

All of these are trivial, of course, compared to what happened to Symbian in Japan, where a significant proportion of featurephones run Symbian under the hood but have a closed UI. This is the real threat to Android: that Google loses control of the UI entirely and Android becomes an embedded system (rather like ‘desktop’ Linux). The Nook is a good example of this - it runs Android, but does not use the Google UI and cannot run any Android apps.

This has become an entire small industry, and companies like Thundersoft are making a tidy living out it, making any Android device with any combination of services you want.

What is Google doing about this? According to Businessweek, it is using licensing to control what manufacturers can and can’t do with Android, and delaying access to the latest version to people who don’t comply. 

The problem with this is that though it might work quite well at slowing the minor sort of fragmentation (using Bing instead of Google search) on high-end devices sold to consumers who know what Android is, it has no effect at all on the larger threat - operators and manufacturers who want to make a $50 phone that uses Android but that doesn’t have Google’s services at all. For them, Google is threatening to deny them stuff they don’t want. 

In other words, Google is trying to stop people making Android devices that ship without its services by… denying them access to its services. Good luck with that.