Google is laying down some rules on what Android carriers are allowed to do with the platform and what they're not. Jack Wallen looks at the new restrictions and what they mean to the spirit of open source.
If you've spent enough time around the Android platform, you know how varied the interface is. From the HTC Sence, to Motorola Blur, to Samsung Fascinate — each carrier has their own take on how best to serve up the platform (There are, obviously varying opinions as to which take is the best.) Although that is very much in keeping with open source, it does cause problems for developers and support alike. Think about how many times you've had to be support for an Android user in your company only to realize you were trying to walk the user through setting up an Exchange connection on a device unlike the one you were using. Believe it or not, the difference between the Motorola and the HTC Android Interface is different enough to nearly seem like you're working on an altogether different platform.
That is not good from a marketing or support standpoint.
So — here's what's happening — Google has finally decided to clamp down on the carriers from making "willy nilly" tweaks to the OS. In fact, Google has laid down some rules. Those rules?
- No more unapproved tweaks.
- No more partnerships formed outside of Google’s purview.
- Companies will need to have their plans for the OS approved before receiving early access to Google’s software.
- Companies must sign a "non-fragmentation" clause that grants Google veto power over changes.
Among many communities, Google is now (more than ever) starting to appear like yet another Evil Empire. When Android was first launched, companies were told they would have a sort of ultimate freedom to be able to develop and design around the platform. But now, it seems, that Google is making a mad-dash turnabout to stop companies from making Android "their own". And although this does go against the true spirit of open source, I actually think this is a smart move on Google's part — so long as they do one thing: Keep the source fully available to companies and individuals.
Why do I think this is a smart move? There are certain issues that have cropped up with the Android platform. First and foremost the variances in the interfaces and settings controls offered up by different carriers has caused a lot of problems for support and developers. Second, viruses have popped up here and there, thanks to the lack of vetting done on the Android Market Place. These two issues alone have caused users exiting the Android platform for the more consistent Apple iOS platform.
In order for Android (and Google) to avoid attrition, some standards are simply going to have to be put in place. Does this mean Android has to become another Apple? No. What it means, however, is that carriers need to leave Android as-is for their handset. And that is not a bad thing. The default Android interface is, generally speaking, much better than anything the carriers have put out (far and away better than the Samsung take, if you ask me.) And this doesn't mean that end-users are going to suffer a lack of flexibility. There will still be other home screen launchers that can be installed (such as ADL Launcher, OpenHome, etc.), so the platform will still remain flexible.
And, more important to the end-user, every handset (regardless of carrier) will be able to be updated to the latest-greatest far sooner than the current model allows. That alone, should make Android users proclaim Google's clamping down a big win.
By laying down a few "laws" the Android platform will gain a stability and continuity it doesn't currently enjoy. This stability and continuity is going to be especially crucial as Android tries to take on Apple in the tablet market. If carriers and manufacturers are allowed to do as they please with the Android OS on tablets, Android would eventually fracture into far too many variances, causing complete confusion on the consumer level and chaos on the developer level. This could easily lead to the Android tablet failing.
As much as I hold dear to the tenets of open source, I actually feel this move on Google's part to be a smart one. By clamping down on carriers, the Android platform will be more consistent, better tested, faster to update, and better vetted. It's a win-win for the platform and the consumers. And although it makes Google look a little more evil (in the eyes of many an open source advocate), so long as they keep the source open they are abiding by the requirements of the open source license.
Anything to make the mobile field more competitive is a good thing. And improving the Android platform will make every end-user who holds an Android device in their hands happier in the end.