Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

Summary: Android is, indeed, open source, in a BSD sense rather than a GPL sense. It's a Protestant church, not a Catholic one.

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We use the phrase Tower of Babel a lot in the technology world, often badly. (The Brueghel painting of the famous Biblical tower appears on Wikipedia.)

But evidence is mounting that Google's Android project is becoming just that, a failed attempt to unify.

Is it?

Some of the blame is being placed on Google. The Open Handset Alliance is controlled by Google, whose employees are micro-managing the code base, it's alleged.

Some of the blame is also being placed on manufacturers, with HTC, Samsung and Sony-Ericsson all producing custom features they don't contribute back, it is said.

Vision Mobile says Android's claim to be open source is a fraud, and that its success is really driven by Qualcomm's desire to sell chips, or the desire of network operators and manufacturers to avoid Apple's tighter controls.

All of which means what, exactly?

To me it means that Android is, indeed, open source, only in a BSD sense rather than a GPL sense. If I may be permitted another religious analogy it's a Protestant church, not a Catholic one.

Open source does not mean complete compatibility. Under a BSD-like license such as the Apache license preferred by Google, it doesn't mean all code must be contributed back, or that those who use a project's code can't add proprietary extensions.

Many companies create proprietary, closed development tools off the Eclipse project, for instance, but no one would say Eclipse is not open source.

To be open source means there is a central store of code that is being built upon and shared. That's what Android is offering.

It's a mistake to confuse forking with rejection of a system's premise. Critics seem to think of Android the way we might think of Ubuntu or Red Hat, as a single Linux distro. In fact, Android seems to be evolving more like Linux itself, with Google controlling the kernel and a vast ecosystem of companies seeking innovation on top of it.

This is a natural tension. You want to differentiate, you want to have something unique. Then at some point you see compatibility as a goal, and you want to get your stuff into the kernel.

This second wave, the move back toward the center, is the true breath of life in an open source project. It's the inhalation, it must be carefully managed for the project to succeed.

Google's ability or willingness to engage in this inhalation successfully will be on display in two weeks, at Google I/O. Will manufacturers bring their ideas back to the center, and will Google incorporate things it didn't create into the code base? This has yet to be seen. This is the test of the next several months.

I wouldn't call Android a failed open source project until it has had a chance to catch its breath.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Mobile OS, Smartphones

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  • Actually an inverse of the Tower of Babel

    I think this is another example of a bad use of "Tower of Babel". In fact, the Android situation is a complete inverse of the myth.<br><br>In the Tower of Babel story, the Babylonians decided to get together to build a tower to touch heaven. God, angry at the hubris of the tower builders, gave them all different languages and dispersed them throughout the Earth.<br><br>In this story God (i.e., Google) sent blueprints for the Tower (Android) down from Heaven. The promise was that if the people (handset makers) could get it together to work as one, they could collectively reach heaven (defeat iPhone). After laying the foundation (Droid, Nexus One, Incredible, etc.), the people have decided they really want their own towers because they think God has too much power and heaven should be theirs. So, they've created languages for themselves (proprietary software, non-standard apps) and are moving to their own corners of the Earth to build their own versions of the Tower.<br><br>How long until the dream of the Tower turns into just a few pathetic piles of rocks?
    RationalGuy
    • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

      @RationalGuy: That is a great analogy. It helped to clear a bit of confusion in my mind as to WTH was going on and why are things starting to look fragmented in Android world

      Thanks again.
      rs_jr
      • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

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        gorians
    • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

      @RationalGuy

      Great analysis! This is what it holding back the apps market for Android (and BB for that matter). Anytime you go anything truely interesting, your code and/or debug for differences in Android OS, device maker, etc. It also leads to apps that crash a lot.

      Android will become the king of the mobile web, and HTML5 should give more interesting mobile web sites ... but the apps are just too painful to get working well across all the handsets to make them worthwhile.

      One could also make a demographic argument, that early adopters (iPhone buyers here) tend to be heavier users of advanced features. They think it is worth the $$$ and effort to get in early. More mainstream adopters will move in, but consume less.
      mobile_manny
      • Consumer confusion

        @mobile_manny<br><br>Android may become king of the mobile web, but only in aggregate. However, as the Android implementations get more and more fragmented by vendor, I'm not sure that's going to mean very much.<br><br>This is going the same way as desktop Linux. Right now, there is no "Linux" just various "Linuxes". There will soon be no such thing as "Android" per se, just different flavors for each vendor, or perhaps for each device, that all run different apps and have different interfaces. This will lead to a watering-down of the "Android" brand for consumers. It will be confusing to consumers and ultimately because "Android" can mean everything, it won't mean anything at all.<br><br>Surely, this fragmentation will continue into the browsing experience. As each vendor ships with a different browser, or different build of rendering engine that supports different functionality, "browsing the web on Android" won't mean anything -- not to users, to individual handset makers, to website developers or to Google for that matter.
        RationalGuy
      • RE: RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

        "Surely, this fragmentation will continue into the browsing experience. As each vendor ships with a different browser, or different build of rendering engine that supports different functionality, "browsing the web on Android" won't mean anything -- not to users, to individual handset makers, to website developers or to Google for that matter."<br><br>But that hasn't happened on desktop Linux, so why would it happen on Android. Firefox renders pages the same regardless if you are using Ubuntu or Fedora.<br><br>Google, owning the Android marketplace and the Android trademark could very well start to enforce compatibility (if they aren't already). They could lock incompatible handsets out of the market and deny handset manufacturers the right to use the name "Android" in their marketing if they don't comply to certain standards.<br><br>As it stands now, I'm not convinced that handset manufacturers are allowed to do whatever they please with their Android-based products. Even though there are differences in terms of performance between older handsets and newer ones, they all share many similarities. They all have accelerometers, Wifi, Bluetooth, compass, cameras with auto-focus. No phone has been built offering a screen resolution that Android doesn't officially support (all phones prior to 1.6 used HVGA). Not all of these features can be considered obvious even for a modern smartphone.<br>The Archos 5 tablet is an example of a device that broke the mold by using a non-supported resolution at launch (WVGA) and lacking a camera. It also didn't have access to the Android market. Coincidence?
        Theli
      • @RationalGuy

        That's exactly what I've been saying - as Google continue on with this approach, Android the brand will eventually get watered-down. It's already watered-down! Other companies will continue to skin Android trying to differentiate themselves and stand out from the pack. As they do so, they are not only competing with the iPhone but they're also now competing with Android (the brand).
        dave95.
      • RE: Re: Is Android Becoming a Tower of Babel?

        @Theli<br><br><i>But that hasn't happened on desktop Linux, so why would it happen on Android. Firefox renders pages the same regardless if you are using Ubuntu or Fedora.</i><br><br>The scarcities of mobile are way different than desktop. Desktop is a luxury resort with all the amenities (power, storage, processor power, memory, etc.). Mobile is like a camping trip. You have to bring everything with you and you have to use what you have judiciously. If a custom Webkit-based "Droid-only" browser gives Verizon the ability to advertise "2x faster browsing", that's a powerful sales tool vis-a-vis other Android phones on different networks.<br><br>Though the kind of fragmentation I'm talking about hasn't happened with Linux browsers, it most definitely has with Linux applications. Regular non-technical people don't want to know about distributions. They just want stuff to work and to get the same apps their friends showed them. [See Maarek's post below. It's technically correct, but to most people it's just gobbledygook.]<br><br><i>Google, owning the Android marketplace and the Android trademark could very well start to enforce compatibility (if they aren't already). They could lock incompatible handsets out of the market and deny handset manufacturers the right to use the name "Android" in their marketing if they don't comply to certain standards.</i><br><br>It would be interesting to know where the line is for what Google is legally allowed to demand. Since they sell the Nexus One, I wonder how the DoJ would feel about them telling their competitors, like HTC and Motorola, what features they are "allowed" to build into their Android phones.
        RationalGuy
    • Great analogy

      @RationalGuy - really appreciated that perspective. Looking at it in that sense, it would appear that as long as the community (Adobe) does not mutiny, that god (steve jobs) is selling the straight scoop
      geminixx
    • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

      @RationalGuy

      Your didn't get the point. In the Biblical story, everybody started out with the same goal, speaking the same language.

      That unity made them strong.

      Until disaster struck and they all wandered away, speaking different languages, unable to act together.

      If disaster strikes the Tower of Android, then the analogy is correct: the platform will dissolve into chaos.

      When I read that Google had licensed multiple manufacturers to make the hardware, I said "uh, oh."

      The Guiness Book of World Records used to have an entry for hitching 40 horses to one carriage and driving it down the road at full speed for a mile.

      They took it out. People kept getting killed trying to repeat the feat.

      See, it's impossible to keep 40 horses harnessed to one carriage and keep them under control permanently.

      You pass a certain threshold, and suddenly the driver is no longer under control.

      Which Google may be about to find out.

      If they crack the whip too much, the horses run away. A crash is inevitable.

      If they pull on the reins too much, the horses will rear, and then run away. In all directions. While still in harness. Ouch.

      Really the only way this strategy works is if you're out in front of the horses leading them.

      And Google is in too much of a rush to take iPhone marketshare to be that cautious.
      Jkirk3279
      • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

        @Jkirk3279

        You don't seem to understand the Bible story at all, the relationships among all of the characters in the story (hint: The Babylonians are the bad guys, and there was no "disaster"), or the definition of the word "inverse."

        Also standing in front of 40 stampeding horses is exceedingly short-sighted.
        RationalGuy
    • RE: RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

      @RationalGuy <br>Have you heard about the Compatibility Test Suite for Android?<br><br>Indeed there exists a compatibility test suite for the manufacturers to ensure that their versions of the Android remain compatible with the standard despite the changes.<br><br>If certain apps don't work on some devices its because of the incompatibilities in hardware which perhaps the developers have not taken care of. (It would require more effort (more code) by the developers in their apps to be able to run them on a wide variety of hardware. For instance, to run an app on devices with different screen resolutions, they may need to add some extra code. The platform has the provisions but, perhaps, developers are not anticipating or targeting enough devices).
      mantrik00
      • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

        @mantrik00

        I think the larger point that I was making is that handset makers are going to begin deliberately building in hardware incompatibilities and writing platform-specific code on purpose. To speak to your second paragraph, it's not that they haven't gotten around to writing compatible software yet. It's that they don't <b>want</b> it to be compatible and are ensuring that it never will be. We're just seeing the beginning of that trend, I think.
        RationalGuy
    • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

      @RationalGuy
      Great insight!!! May I ask what you do for work?
      buttonpusher
      • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

        @buttonpusher

        Thank you. I work in digital marketing and social media.

        Why do you ask?
        RationalGuy
  • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

    I love when BSD gets mentioned :)
    Loverock Davidson
  • Create your interface, but make the apps compatible

    compared to the software on your computer, the mobile market place is no different. You are taking the base OS, Android and creating an interface that someone might like. Motorola has Blur and the Google/droid interface. HTC created SenseUI and uses Google's interface as well. How different are these from RPM or BSD? Or how about KDE or GNOME? They all are utilizing the same Kernel. Google isn't making money off the OS, but rather the advertising as mentioned before. So what if you have to wait for an update, you have to do the same when the next Kernel is released for your desktop.

    If I create an android app and it works across all handsets, then I'm pleased with my results. If I come up with an idea that the phone cannot render yet, I'll send a message to google and they'll add it on to their next Android update. I'll create the app anyways but will make note of additional features when they're readily available to the OS as well as the software update.
    Maarek
  • I installed..

    i installed a bunch of application just for test it and i found that only 3 applications showed some kind problems, mainly caused by the resolution of the screen but still usable.

    The exception was ScummVM cause this application is incompatible with Android 2.x
    magallanes
  • RE: Talk about making a mountain from a mole hill.

    It is only natural for manufacturers to want make their product stand out in some way. Its called capitalism and it inspires makers to be innovative. iPhone devel will stagnate from lack of it. I have tried 1000s of apps on my Xperia x10 and have yet to find one that didn't work.<br>As to giving back to open source, makers that never give back will have a bigger and bigger job of adding their proprietary software into each new version of the Android core, because they will need to go through more and more testing and conflict resolution. When they give back, their software will be integrated by the entire community, thus reducing the Makers work load. It may take a while, but the makers will realize this benefit of giving back.
    anothercanuck
  • RE: Is Android becoming a Tower of Babel?

    You can tell those on the outside looking in. For one fragmentation is not that bad and it is not growing. Nor is it caused by the different UI customizations exactly. It was caused by the rapid releases by Google in trying to get to market quickly. They have said they are done with that and are now separating the core areas from features that can be updated through the market. The core will see once a year updates. It already been done with some apps.

    And I find it hilarious how people talk about the hardware makers seeking to differentiate as a problem. if you'd followed android from the beginning you'd know this was the goal before it ever launched. They even said they were not originally packing it with features because they planned to have third parties do this with their all apps are created equal philosophy. Most of these customization beyond the visual changes to widgets are just applications. Many of them you can replace with stock apps if you have them. Android is actually almost past its initial growing pains. It's a new concept and of course things won't be smooth at first.
    storm14k