July 19, 2024

Android Open Source Model Has a Short Circuit

[Update: Google subsequently worked out a mechanism that allows Cyanogen and others to distribute their mods separate from the Google Apps.]

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 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 not 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 Managing Miracles)


  1. So, Andriod is about as “Open Source” as Mac OS X is. Good work, Google.

  2. It is hard to see how Android gets such a free ride as a Linux distribution and as being open source. You cannot get open access to your Android phone. Try getting a terminal and root access to your G1. The only time that happened was a bug that was soon closed.

    It is extremely disappointing to see the mindshare that Google gets with Android in the US in particularly when they haven’t actually done anything to deserve it.

    If people want a real open mobile phone platform they should be actually more interested in Maemo and what Nokia is doing with that, such as the new N900.

    • Android most certainly is Linux. The distribution that is currently distributed on T-Mobile devices is locked down in a way that prevents users from getting root access (although they can indeed get a terminal). The Android Developer Phone is not. You may disagree with this policy (I do), but it does not make it any less Linux. When I type ‘uname -a’ on my rooted G1, I see ‘Linux 2.6.27…”

      Likewise, the core operating system and supporting tools for Android are open source, but the Google Apps are not. When those closed source apps are necessary for basic use of the device, that creates problems with claiming that the platform as a whole is open source (a distinction Google seems to be getting better at articulating). Again, you may disagree with the policy, but that does not make the open source components any less open source.

      You’re right that there are interesting projects out there that appear to be embracing open source under different models than Android, including Maemo, LiMo, and Openmoko.

    • John Millington says

      Your statement just goes to show how confusing everything is. Android is open. The G1 is not.

      It reminds me of the situation with Linux and Tivo. When you buy a Tivo box, you’re getting Linux, but you’re not necessarily getting an overall maintainable product.

      So, sure, point people at Maemo on their phone and MythTV behind their TV. But that doesn’t mean Android really has problems with openness. It just means people need to be careful about the overall systems they let into their lives, and that a free component doesn’t necessarily have implications about the big picture.

  3. Somehow there should be a right to be able to upgrade, modify, etc. any GPL covered code on a system in place regardless of whatever else is there.

    Perhaps this means that cellphone X needs to be able to pull and decompose the chunks to allow this,

    But this has the feel of TiVoization.

  4. I have a G1… and I love it. I think Android is awesome. I actually like it way better than the iPhone.

    “Bottom line — Google uses the ‘open’ concept cynically. It makes things open when it suits its interests (and always retains control) and it locks down otherwise.”

    I agree with this. But, if you were one of the most powerful companies in the world… wouldn’t you?


  5. John Millington says

    “suffice to say the clear regulatory distinctions between telephone networks, broadband, and devices have become muddied”

    Uh, I think everybody has see that coming for a long time. It’s actually kind of amazing that there still are any regulatory distinctions. These things are all the same thing.

  6. If modifications to Android can’t be used to upgrade existing Android phones (because doing so would nuke the proprietary apps) then Google is essentially taking advantage of a huge pool of free labor for the cost of a code-vetting process for new official releases. Which is a great business idea, sometimes.

  7. Perhaps Google should consider releasing these apps under some form of a creative commons license. If they want people to be able to redistribute them without being change, they can use no-derivs.

  8. Finally the world is waking up to Google and its ‘open-source’ strategy. The company is a serial abuser of the entire notion of ‘open’ — cynically wielding it as a weapon in business.

    The company has never *joined * an open-source project. It just starts them — ensuring that by the strength of the number or coders it has, it keeps control over the projects. it does this even when there are well-established projects already, screwing over other communities in the process — Mozilla vs. Chrome, Android or ChromeOS vs MobLin or LiMo.

    Bottom line — Google uses the ‘open’ concept cynically. It makes things open when it suits its interests (and always retains control) and it locks down otherwise.

    And the simpering community rolls over and takes it because it’s the darling ‘do no evil’ Google.

  9. Android is Open Soruce. The apps developed for it by Google are not. and that is the distinction Google is trying to make. It may not be right for open source community but I think that Google has a right to protect their business interests.

  10. Until Google has a solid foot hold with the cellphone providers they HAVE to play a little hard ball. It’s a means to an end. Think more 5 or 10 years out. This is also a big win for Cyanogen since they getting a ton of free publicity. Expect Cyanogen to get a bunch of programming working out of this news and eventually purchased for big money.

  11. Very good article.