Saturday, September 26, 2009

Android Open Source Model Has a Short Circuit

Last year, Google entered the mobile phone market with a Linux-based mobile operating system. The company brought together device manufacturers and carriers in the Open Handset Alliance, explaining that, "Together we have developed Android™, the first complete, open, and free mobile platform." There has been considerable engagement from the open source developer community, as well as significant uptake from consumers. Android may have even been instrumental in motivating competing open platforms like LiMo. In addition to the underlying open source operating system, Google chose to package essential (but proprietary) applications with Android-based handsets. These applications include most of the things that make the handsets useful (including basic functions to sync with the data network). This two-tier system of rights has created a minor controversy.

A group of smart open source developers created a modified version of the Android+Apps package, called Cyanogen. It incorporated many useful and performance-enhancing updates to the Android OS, and included unchanged versions of the proprietary Apps. If Cyanogen hadn't included the Apps, the package would have been essentially useless, given that Google doesn't appear to provide a means to install the Apps on a device that has only a basic OS. As Cyanogen gained popularity, Google decided that it could no longer watch the project distribute their copyright-protected works. The lawyers at Google decided that they needed to send a Cease & Desist letter to the Cyanogen developer, which caused him to caused him to take the files off of his site and spurred backlash from the developer community.

Android represents a careful balance on the part of Google, in which the company seeks to foster open platforms but maintain control over its proprietary (but free) services. Google has stated as much, in response to the current debate. Android is an exciting alternative to the largely closed-source model that has dominated the mobile market to date. Google closely integrated their Apps with the operating system in a way that makes for a tremendously useful platform, but in doing so hampered the ability of third-party developers to fully contribute to the system. Perhaps the problem is simply that they did choose the right location to draw the line between open vs. closed source -- or free-to-distribute vs. not.

The latter distinction might offer a way out of the conundrum. Google could certainly grant blanket rights to third-parties to redistribute unchanged versions of their Apps. This might compromise their ability to make certain business arrangements with carriers or handset providers in which they package the software for a fee. That may or may not be worth it from their business perspective, but they could have trouble making the claim that Android is a "complete, open, and free mobile platform" if they don't find a way to make it work for developers.

This all takes place in the context of a larger debate over the extent to which mobile platforms should be open -- voluntarily or via regulatory mandate. Google and Apple have been arguing via letters to the FCC about whether or not Apple should allow the Google Voice application in the iPhone App Store. However, it is yet to be determined whether the Commission has the jurisdiction and political will to do anything about the issue. There is a fascinating sideshow in that particular dispute, in which AT&T has made the very novel claim that Google Voice violates network neutrality (well, either that or common carriage -- they'll take whichever argument they can win). Google has replied. This is a topic for another day, but suffice to say the clear regulatory distinctions between telephone networks, broadband, and devices have become muddied.

(Cross-posted to Freedom To Tinker)

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