Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt's long-awaited appearance in front of the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust today rightly focused on the issue of whether or not Google "cooked" search results in its own favor.
But his testimony inevitably touched on the Android mobile operating system and how its openness fosters competition. The problem is that I think his representation of Google Android's openness was unfairly skewed.
Here's the relevant bit of Schmidt's testimony, taken from the transcript available on the Senate committee's webpage:
Open sourcing software has real benefits in the marketplace[...]rather than having to build their own operating systems, companies can and do use Android, as a full-fledged operating system, to power many different types of devices. In fact Android's openness allows anyone to take it and develop it independently – Amazon reportedly is doing this with a tablet expected to go on sale this fall and others have too. Android's openness has helped make mobile computing competitive by allowing the introduction of lower-priced smartphones and pushing other companies to innovate and improve their products – all resulting in better phones for less.
I think there are few reading this who would argue with Schmidt's core principle that open source often equates to more product versatility and innovation.
But Google has been slowly but surely closing off the Android mobile operating system, going so far as to not release the Android 3.x code as open source at all. That means that the maintenance and future of Android devices - especially tablets - are almost as much in the hands of the Google Android team and its OEMs as iOS devices are in Apple's. That's something that the Google Android project was designed to avoid from the word "go."
And speaking of OEMs, the ongoing FTC probe into Google's business practices expanded in early August to include Android, allegedly on accustations that Google was bullying handset manufacturers into abandoning competing products.
Couple that with Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility, which is already generating rumors of unfair play in the Android market thanks to the existence of "highly proprietary source code," and you start to see an unflattering picture of just how open and pro-competition the Android ecosystem may actually be.
What I'm trying to get at is this: Schmidt's claim that Android is widely available and able to be developed isn't exactly a lie - he's correct when he says that Amazon is developing a Kindle tablet built on a modified version of Android. And previous versions of Android remain available for any developer to find, download, and tinker with.
But it's increasingly untrue that all Android devices start from a level playing field. And it's hardly fair play for Schmidt to suggest that they do in front of panel of US Senators.