How open is Google's Android?

How open is Google's Android?

Summary: Market research analyst firm VisionMobile says Google' Android smartphone operating system isn't very open at all. Google's open-source chief Chris DiBona strongly disagrees.


People debate how "open" various open-source projects all the time. In fact, the very way I made that statement is charged because I didn't include the phrase "free software." Sometimes these arguments get more serious though. For example, in VisionMobile, a market research firm, A new way of measuring Openness, from Android to WebKit: The Open Governance Index report the company declared that Android was the least open project they examined. Chris DiBona, Google's open-source manager, vehemently disagrees.

VisionMobile's Open Governance Index, which the analyst firm used to make this call, is based on:

1. Access: availability of the latest source code, developer support mechanisms, public road-map, and transparency of decision-making

2. Development: the ability of developers to influence the content and direction of the project

3. Derivatives: the ability for developers to create and distribute derivatives of the source code in the form of spin-off projects, handsets or applications.

4. Community: a community structure that does not discriminate between developers

This is VisionMobile's own take. The company has no connection, that I know of, with open-source organizations such as the Open Source Initative or The Linux Foundation. Never-the-less, they have a point, or do they?

DiBona first took note of this report on Twitter while talking about it with some others. There, he wrote, "I got >10million lines of code that says otherwise. Be wary of Large consultancies selling reports."

After talking about it more on Twitter, DiBona decided he wanted to talk about the issue in more detail than Twitter's 140 characters would allow, so he took his thoughts to Google+, there DiBona continued:

When I consider open source projects whether large or small, I always ask the same thing:

1) Where is the code. 2) What license is the code under. 3) Can I build it.

If those three things can be answered in the affirmative, then I would assert that the following are much much less important

a) What 'governance' structure do the core developers of the product follow. b) Is the code developed in the open?

DiBona gets no argument from me on this score. By these definitions, Android is certainly open. However, when he goes on: "For the latter, that mostly matters when there aren't releases done very often, and why the HC [Honeycomb] release of android is so vexing for some people. But if the code is released and under a real open source license and I can build it, then if I don't like the governance structure or development style, I can take the code and do what I wish with it."

The Honeycomb issue, I, along with some other people, do have a beef with Android. You see back in April, Google released the first version of Android 3.0, Honeycomb, to some large equipment vendors and developers, but they didn't open source it at the time. Andy Rubin, head of Google's Android group, said, the open-source version would be released under open source "as soon as it's ready."

Leaving aside how that plays with Android's Apache Software License and how developers who weren't in the first wave to get access to the code, I also thought Google's Honeycomb move was a mistake because the whole point of open source is that code gets better as you get more eyeballs on it. Here, I see Google both playing fast and lose with the license and partners but with the very concept of open source. If you want to go that a minor governance problem you can, but I still think it was a strategic mistake.

Yes, Honeycomb is being developed quickly anyway. But, not everyone is happy with Honeycomb even as it's now being shipped on some tablets as Android 3.1. I'm sure that if the code had been opened all along it would have been better than it is today.

In short, what I'm saying is that yes, Android is open source. I have no question about it, no matter what research group may say. But, could Google do a better job of getting the code into developers' hands? Yes, I think they can, and, for their own good, they should.

Related Stories:

Report: Open source Android mobile platform not very open at all

Google speaks out about 'hostile, organized campaign' against Android

Five reasons Android can fail

Google's Rubin defends Android's open source cred

Google Android 3.0 "Honeycomb": Open source no more

Topics: Security, Android, Google, Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility, Open Source, Smartphones, Software Development

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  • RE: How open is Google's Android?

    Android as an OS is Open Source.
    But Android based phones are as closed as iPhones. Plus they offer an array of viruses and carriers+manufacturers' crapware.
    • RE: How open is Google's Android?

      @kitko There aren't really any viruses. There are some rogue apps, but there have been rogue apps on the Apple App store aswell.
      • Apple did it so it's OK for Android to be just as bad?

        I thought Open Source was supposed to be better at this stuff than the big companies! Now you justify bad behavior by comparing to Apple? You can't be serious!
    • RE: How open is Google's Android?

      "But Android based phones are as closed as iPhones."

      No, they aren't. You can install any app you want on an Android phone whether it is in the market or not. iPhones are only compatible with the App Store.

      "Plus they offer an array of viruses"


      "and carriers+manufacturers' crapware."

      Many people happen to like what you so arrogantly call crapware. Troll.
  • RE: How open is Google's Android?

    Here's how "open" Android is. It's open when it benefits Google's financial statements and closed when it doesn't. You can split hairs all you want about it but at the end of the day, Google is calling the shots and having one central group control software for financial interests goes against the whole spirit of FOSS.
    Andre Richards
    • Just can't handle success, can you

      @Andre Richards
      Seems to be a big issue with Open Source. As soon as a commercial enterprise leverages Open Source and makes a boatload, and call the shots as is required to make money, it goes against the "Spirit" of Open Source.

      Better get used to commercial enterprises making money and calling the shots for financial purposes. If Open Office is an example of "Success" in the Open Source community, might as well drive the last nail in the coffin now.

      Somehow, success is evil here. How foolish.
      • RE: How open is Google's Android?

        @Cynical99 I think that the only companies making a boatload of money from Android are the carriers like AT&T and Verizon with their ridiculously expensive data plans. The smartphone mfrs are likely making relatively small margins and I believe that this is one factor (not the only factor) in the forthcoming 18-month support cycle for Android-based devices. They need to sell lots of hardware via planned obsolescence.<br><br>As for Google, I suspect had they not acquired and invested in Android and, instead, partnered with and made exclusive search deals with Apple and RIM, their revenue from search would be about the same (their profits would actually be higher without Android-related expenses). Plus, they would not have alienated former partners such as Apple.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
      • RE: How open is Google's Android?

        @Rabid Howler -
        By your logic the only companies making money are the companies that have locked it down tightest.

        I always found that interesting. The most successful Open Source product on the planet is actually so closed that no one can touch the guts. To be honest, Motorola hasn't published their custom mods to Android, have they?

        Completely locked down and highly successful. And I thought Open Source was supposed to be completely open and highly successful. Not so here -
      • Hardly -- You Miss the Point

        Red Hat is successful. I don't see anyone calling them evil. The point is that open source software has the source code available. So far, Honeycomb's source isn't generally available to everyone who runs Honeycomb, so Honeycomb is not yet open source.
    • RE: How open is Google's Android?

      @Andre Richards
      Last I checked, you can download Android's source code in its entirety. My phone agrees as it is running AOSP Gingerbread at this very moment.
  • RE: How open is Google's Android?

    I am thinking a bit further, how open should be Google's Android in future?: Considering that next step in mobile is going to be payment. Would users like Android OS completely open? Would they trust the system? I think they would hardly do, as security would be vulnerable. Moreover, once it became a commodity Android could be out of the market if people do not trust security in its payments. Governance is also necessary for guaranteeing integrity in the system. I strongly believe that is completely compatible with open source and Mozilla is a clear example of it.
    • RE: How open is Google's Android?

      @estrellaaparicio "Would users like Android OS completely open? Would they trust the system? I think they would hardly do, as security would be vulnerable."

      I don't follow this logic. Nothing is much more closed than Micro$oft Windows, yet that OS has vulnerable security and lots of users buy it.
      • Thats cute they way you used a $ instead of &quot;s&quot;

        @colinmeister Were you trying to say that money is bad?
  • DiBona being disingenuous

    So, he disagrees with the report simply by saying 'open development and governance isn't important'? Well, that's...a way to do it, I suppose.

    Yes, as long as the code is open, everyone can fork it. But is 'everyone maintain their own fork!' the best way to do development? I think most people would say 'no'. I don't think the lack of long-term Android forks attests to the fact that everyone's happy with Google's closed, throw-the-code-over-the-wall development model, it attests to the fact that maintaining a fork of a closed, throw-the-code-over-the-wall project in the long term is very hard and not many organizations are capable of it, or willing to do it. That doesn't mean it's a good model.
  • RE: How open is Google's Android?

    Not NEARLY as open as GNU/Linux and MUCH more open than Microsoft Windows. But, guess what? The vast majority of Android-based device users don't give a rat's behind.

    What these users do care about are malware free apps in Google's Android Market and timely firmware upgrades from Android-based device mfrs and carriers.

    And it will be interesting to see their response to the forthcoming 18-month support cycle for Android-based smartphones. Expensive, throw-away smartphones in a rapidly-deteriorating economy.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • RE: How open is Google's Android?

      @Rabid Howler Monkey
      Malware free apps from the apps store and timely upgrades.

      Seems google isn't meeting those two requirements at all.
      • RE: How open is Google's Android?

        @Cynical99 +1
        Rabid Howler Monkey
  • RE: How open is Google's Android?

    By his own criterion, Android is NOT open. Other than the two Google phones, unless you are an OEM or a vendor, you can NOT build Android source code on the device on which it is intended to run, namely, and Android phone.
    By his own definition, Android is not open.
  • Not open at all.

    If it was open, you could have the code. I don't have Honeycomb source, do you? Further, if it was open you could build it on an iPhone, or build it on a pc, or anywhere with enough hardware to handle it. Android is somewhere in between a shareware game from the 90s and the draconian corporate slavery of iOS. It's nowhere near any definition that I can must of "open". Frankly, I could care less. I buy hardware that runs Linux Mint. That IS open, by EVERY definition of the word.
    • RE: How open is Google's Android?

      @crhylove If you have the source code, you can build Android for any device. The only thing you need is a brain because it should not be easy but it's perfectly feasible.
      Open source doesn't mean "I can build for iPhone or for PC just by doing make"