The Honeycomb Lockout: How Open is Android?

Top tier Android evangelists and Product Managers never miss a chance to rant about the openness of the Android platform. The open source nature of Android serves to snub iOS at every turn and that has been justified until last month. So what changed?

Google announced that they won’t be open sourcing the code of Honeycomb, Android 3.0, any time soon. That announcement does hurt the image of Android as an open platform. But, as always, let us weigh in on how this will affect the ecosystem and us, the users.

Google’s Justification

A lot of bloggers have given life to old arguments doubting the “real” openness of Android, in true legal sense I mean. They have pulled out theory after theory on how the GPL and Apache licensing gives Google room to do whatever they want. Legal agreements and licenses are murky and can be twisted — but let’s not get into that. The software is not ready for willy-nilly deployment on every digital device that moves and hence the lockdown. It’s as simple as that.

So How Are Users Affected?

End users aren’t hurt by this decision at all. Actually, in the long run, we stand to benefit from the lockdown of Honeycomb. How, you ask? End users don’t have any use with the Android source code. It’s not yet an official release, so if you are not getting it, neither are any other Android users. It’s not as if the code being openly available means you can just put it on your phone.

App developers technically don’t need the source code of Android to start developing apps for Honeycomb. All they need is the Software Development kit (SDK) to create apps and, in fact, they already have access to SDK version 3.0, which helps them write apps for tablets running Honeycomb.

Xoom Running Honeycomb

Xoom Running Honeycomb

Who Is Going to Be Hurt?

Without doubt it is going to be the OEM vendors that operate out of China. No source code means no cheap knock-off tablets. Plus, we won’t be having mobile phones running a version of software that clearly wasn’t designed to run on them at all — like the range of Google tablets running Android 2.2, which was designed for smartphones. The race to the bottom will be slower, going forward.

The second group of people that are going to be negatively affected are hackers who release custom ROMs. Custom ROMs are awesome and often they stand to be the true beacons of Android’s usability, thanks to the absence of all the bloatware and custom wrappers like Rachael, HTC Sense etc.

Final Thoughts

I laud Google for taking the tough decision of locking down Honeycomb, knowing full well the brickbats they are going to receive. It’s actually wiser to hold the version till it’s absolutely ready than to get publicly humiliated by the man in black turtleneck and blue jeans in front of millions of people. So what if we don’t get hundreds of cheap tablets from China?

Let us have ten outstanding tablets rather than a hundred crappy ones with a half life that is shorter than Apple products. There are going to be some cry babies whining how they adopted Android for its openness and would have gone with a closed ecosystem if they just wanted better UI and experience. Well, Android has become so big, it’s not just about the feelings of certain self proclaimed Android evangelists. Android of today is all about the common man — those who don’t want to spend hundreds of bucks on a tablet that adds one feature a year.

Yes, we have lost our privilege of making snappy soundbytes at the closed iOS ecosystem. Well, you don’t have to make fun of somebody to prove that you are better than them. Right?

Read about how Google is actually undertaking the lockdown in Google Starts to Rebuild the Fragments.