Google’s locked-down Honeycomb confronts Open Source ideology

There have always been two Androids. Lazy journalists – including myself – have called Google’s smartphone OS free and open source, but that’s never been the whole story. Google’s apparent decision last week to strictly control access to its Honeycomb tablet software puts a quiet division front and center, and it throws down a gauntlet that I would love to see open-source advocates finally meet.

Let’s get this “open Android” thing out of the way first. There are really two Androids. The first – let’s call it Android-O – is an open-source project that Google contributes a lot to. The second – Android-G – is a proprietary Google project that happens to frequently ingest and excrete open-source code.

At any given moment, the latest, hottest Android phones and devices are running the closed Android-G, not the open Android-O. That’s always been the case. Every new version of Android is introduced with Android-G devices, and eventually, once Google’s mind has moved on to other things, that code gets dumped out into the Android-O repository…

Google’s become unusually strict with Honeycomb, though, and that’s because the tablet market is very different from the phone market. The phone market has a shifting cast of minority players with different strengths. The tablet market, on the other hand, is dominated by one big gorilla: Apple.

The world is littered with the corpses of open-source mobile projects. Nokia’s Maemo, Intel and Nokia’s MeeGo, LiMo, OpenMoko, and TuxPhone have all failed in the market so far. Back in 2009, I said that “open source phones still fail” because wireless carriers don’t like the unexpected, dynamic nature of open-source projects.

But this time, I think the problem is different. Going up against Apple, the tablet leader, Google realized it needs an industry-leading UI and a consistent brand experience for Android on tablets.

And open-source projects, as is well known, have serious problems creating industry leading UIs. For one thing, open-source projects tend to attract hard-core programmers who love adding features, not visual visionaries. But possibly more importantly, a great end-user experience is often about editing – about making things fit to a consistent vision, which is much easier when there’s one consistent vision driving the project…

Linux fans are now about to erupt with “Ubuntu!” But Ubuntu hasn’t had the broad, mainstream breakthrough that many of us hoped it would have a few years ago. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s not because Ubuntu doesn’t have an attractive basic UI – I think it does, in large part because of good governance – but because as soon as you start attaching third-party components, that ease of use begins to fray…

What’s happened with non-Googleized Android has only proved my point about open UIs. Go look at our tablet reviews; they’re a shambling, zombie-like army of bad products, with only the Samsung Galaxy Tab (designed with some Google input), Motorola Xoom (Google’s flagship) and the Apple iPad standing out…

To face down a tablet market where UI expert Apple is dominant, Google clearly decided it needed to raise its UI game – and open-source isn’t the right path to do so.

Most members [and followers] of the Open Source religion will continue to do what they usually do. Futz with their add-ons and coding and then try to figure out a kludge to make their OS look like Apple’s iOS. In the bulk of the marketplace that’s good enough. After all, stealing something that works ain’t a bad idea. Ask the guys who produced Windows.

But, superimposing one or another copycat idea onto another – interspersed with code that isn’t required to meet overall engineering regulation is not how you build devices with a long user experience that is smooth and flawless. Android apps break the system with consistent frequency. It doesn’t get easier to manage quality control and pretend to be Open and Free at the same time.

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