On the Promise of Android’s Openness

Ryan Paul:

When Android was first announced, Google’s evangelists touted it as an open ecosystem that would enable innovation—a hardware and software reaffirmation of the Carterfone decision. They spoke of a future where users would be free from restrictions and be able to install whatever software they want.

Sadly, those promises were never fulfilled and the dream of an open mobile ecosystem around Android never materialized. In reality, Android has become an insular platform developed almost entirely behind closed doors in an environment that is hostile to external contributors and is mired in a culture of secrecy that serves a small handful of prominent commercial hardware vendors and mobile carriers.

Paul is right. I fear the first Motorola Droid was the last phone that was as close to “open” as Android will get.

But there’s a problem. It’s worth the word open.

Google was using the word open to describe two things:

  • The Android software: The code was to be open-sourced, managed by Google, so the community could be involved in bug fixes and new features.
  • The Android experience: Android allows users to customize all sorts of things, including system resources like the keyboard.

The first one is going away, as Paul points out in his article. Google isn’t opening the code to Honeycomb yet. Time will tell if they ever do.

Carriers are also at play here, slowing the software update process way down, to drive users to new phones.

The second one is what most people mean when they describe Android as “open.” What they mean to say is that Android has “options.” Don’t like the carrier? Use Google Voice! Don’t like the keyboard? Use Swype! Need better resource management? Here’s a widget!

Options are great things, but too much of any good thing is bad. Google’s nonchalant attitude towards skins and carrier-loaded crapware has left many good phones crippled by software, not to mentions users annoyed. Fragmentation, multiple appstore experiences and more all leave Android users left to fend for themselves, but in the good, open way people were hoping for when Android shipped.

So, is Android open? Less and less, no matter what definition you like.