From day one, I've remarked that Android is not really an open source project. It promised openness but didn't deliver, instead continuing a strategy of semi-openness to gain market share against its proprietary rival. That Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) tightly controlled the Android community shouldn't be surprising since - for any firm - the point of funding (and controlling) a sponsored community is to gain benefits not available to other firms.
This wasn't just my opinion, but was supported by a detailed study by Liz Laffan of Vision Mobile, a European consulting firm. (I thought the study was a clever idea - not just because it leveraged my typology of firm-controlled open source communities - and the press did as well). In comparing the governance of mobile open source communities, Laffan found Android was by far the least open of eight mobile-related communities. She concluded:
Android's success has little to do with the open source licensing of the public codebase. Android would not have risen to its current ubiquity were it not for Google's financial muscle and famed engineering team. Development of the Android platform has occurred without the need for external developers or the involvement of a commercial community.
Google has provided Android at "less than zero" cost, since its core business is not software or search, but driving ads to eyeballs. As is now well understood, Google's strategy has been to subsidize Android such that it can deliver cheap handsets and low-cost wireless Internet access in order to drive more eyeballs to Google's ad inventory.
More importantly, Android would not have risen were it not for the billions of dollars that OEMs and network operators poured into Android in order to compete with Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iconic devices. As Stephen Elop, CEO of Nokia (NYSE:NOK), said at the Open Mobile Summit in June, 2011, "Apple created the conditions necessary for Android".
As Laffan notes, the one way that Android was open was the provision of source code. But that's changed too, as Ron Amadeo documented Sunday on the Ars Technica website:
Google has always given itself some protection against alternative versions of Android. What many people think of as "Android" actually falls into two categories: the open parts from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), which are the foundation of Android, and the closed source parts, which are all the Google-branded apps. While Google will never go the entire way and completely close Android, the company seems to be doing everything it can to give itself leverage over the existing open source project. And the company's main method here is to bring more and more apps under the closed source "Google" umbrella.
There have always been closed source Google apps. Originally, the group consisted mostly of clients for Google's online services, like Gmail, Maps, Talk, and YouTube. When Android had no market share, Google was comfortable keeping just these apps and building the rest of Android as an open source project. Since Android has become a mobile powerhouse though, Google has decided it needs more control over the public source code.
For some of these apps, there might still be an AOSP equivalent, but as soon as the proprietary version was launched, all work on the AOSP version was stopped. Less open source code means more work for Google's competitors. While you can't kill an open source app, you can turn it into abandon ware by moving all continuing development to a closed source model. Just about any time Google rebrands an app or releases a new piece of Android onto the Play Store, it's a sign that the source has been closed and the AOSP version is dead.
In some ways, this is looking like IBM's (NYSE:IBM) WebSphere. IBM has a proprietary software package layered on top of an open source Apache HTML server engine: yes, the engine is useful, but it's not complete for the commercially important applications. (BEA's - now Oracle's - WebLogic plays a somewhat similar role). However, IBM was open about what it wanted: in our 2006 paper, Scott Gallagher and I noted how IBM was quite open about its strategy.
What's different here is the suggestion by Amadeo (this week) and others (previously) of an intentional bait and switch strategy:
Vic Gundotra, recalling Andy Rubin's initial pitch for Android, stated:
He argued that if Google did not act, we faced a Draconian future, a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice.
Google was terrified that Apple would end up ruling the mobile space. So, to help in the fight against the iPhone at a time when Google had no mobile foothold whatsoever, Android was launched as an open source project.
In that era, Google had nothing, so any adoption-any shred of market share-was welcome. Google decided to give Android away for free and use it as a trojan horse for Google services.
Today, things are a little different. Android went from zero percent of the smartphone market to owning nearly 80 percent of it. Android has arguably won the smartphone wars, but "Android winning" and "Google winning" are not necessarily the same thing. Since Android is open source, it doesn't really "belong" to Google. Anyone is free to take it, clone the source, and create their own fork or alternate version.
The article documents how Google uses its APIs and app store to punish any attempt to fork the code. (Yes, the Kindle is a successful fork, but without the Google APIs it will only have a fraction of the 850,000+ Android apps.)
While Android is open, it's more of a "look but don't touch" kind of open. You're allowed to contribute to Android and allowed to use it for little hobbies, but in nearly every area, the deck is stacked against anyone trying to use Android without Google's blessing. The second you try to take Android and do something that Google doesn't approve of, it will bring the world crashing down upon you.
Disclosure: Author has holdings in AAPL.