Google defends Android openness, but the case isn't closed


A mobile operating system is like a door--either it's open or it's closed. Seems simple, but still the debate over Android's openness continues to rage on. Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) stance on the subject is clear: Android remains as open as ever. Last week, Google vice president of engineering Andy Rubin publicly refuted rumors that the company is taking steps to assume greater control over the Android ecosystem, stating it remains "committed to fostering the development of an open platform for the mobile industry and beyond." Following a recent Bloomberg Businessweek report indicating operators and manufacturers must now seek Google's approval for all significant Android user interface tweaks, Rubin turned to the Android Developers Blog to clarify the state of the Android nation. "We don't believe in a 'one size fits all' solution," he writes. "As always, device makers are free to modify Android to customize any range of features for Android devices. This enables device makers to support the unique and differentiating functionality of their products."

In the event an Android partner wishes to market a device as Android-compatible or include Google-branded applications, Google does require that the hardware conform with its basic compatibility requirements. Rubin adds that this "anti-fragmentation" program has been in place since the 2008 release of Android 1.0. "Our approach remains unchanged: There are no lock-downs or restrictions against customizing UIs," Rubin states. "There are not, and never have been, any efforts to standardize the platform on any single chipset architecture."

Rubin also defended Google's decision to temporarily halt open access to the new Android 3.0, a.k.a. "Honeycomb'"--according to Google, the platform update (optimized for larger form-factor devices like tablets) is not yet ready for customization across a variety of products. "We continue to be an open source platform and will continue releasing source code when it is ready," Rubin vows. "As I write this the Android team is still hard at work to bring all the new Honeycomb features to phones. As soon as this work is completed, we'll publish the code. This temporary delay does not represent a change in strategy. We remain firmly committed to providing Android as an open source platform across many device types."

But Rubin's response fails to address recent reports that Google is actively clamping down on Android customizations that run counter to its own business aspirations--for example, sources told Bloomberg Businessweek that Google has attempted to delay the release of Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) Android devices featuring Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Bing search engine. And in September 2010, location positioning, context and intelligence solutions provider Skyhook Wireless sued Google for patent infringement and interfering in its business relationship with Motorola, alleging Google "wielded its control over the Android operating system, as well as other Google mobile applications such as Google Maps, to force device manufacturers to use its technology rather than that of Skyhook, to terminate contractual obligations with Skyhook, and to otherwise force device manufacturers to sacrifice superior end user experience with Skyhook by threatening directly or indirectly to deny timely and equal access to evolving versions of the Android operating system and other Google mobile applications."

Beyond the Skyhook suit, tensions between Google and its Android partners have reportedly increased to the point where some companies have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice. It's unclear whether federal investigators will look into the matter, but it seems obvious that questions about Android's openness aren't going away. Google can't have it both ways: Either Android is open, or it isn't. And if it is, then Google can't act as the doorman deciding who gets past the velvet rope and who doesn't. -Jason