Could Google take a leaf from Microsoft's book and rein in the handset manufacturers by taking closer control over Android - and closing the source?
The Android operating system itself is open source, but the Google apps on Android aren't - and Google already places other conditions on Android OEMs. If they want the Android Marketplace on phones, they have to use Google's location services; if they want Honeycomb, they have to remove physical buttons from their tablets. But if they don't, they're free to choose any version of Android, to offer updates or to leave users stranded on old versions, to add a third-party marketplace or their own skin to the home screen. Not only does that give you an unpredictable experience with any Android phone you pick up, it makes it harder for Android developers - including Google itself and key partners like Adobe - to create apps that will run on every Android device. For example, fixes to some embarrassing bugs - like sending text messages to the wrong person or not syncing email from the latest version of Microsoft Exchange - are only available on Google's own Nexus handsets so far.
Oh, and manufacturers can take Android - and strip Google Search out of it, which is where Google makes money from Android. Verizon making Bing the default search tool on a handful of phones probably isn't too painful for Google; Chinese manufacturers replacing Google with Baidu is worse news.
Fragmentation isn't the Android-killer some mobile rivals paint it as, but it is a major issue. Even the Google TV team has fragmented Android (Google TV is based on a customised version of Android 2.1, but with the Chrome browser rather than the Android browser and we've heard rumours of spirited discussions about the platform involving both teams and their hardware partners).
Closing the source and having more say over what handset partners can do would let Google avoid losing mobile search share, but the rumour we've heard says the Android team want to close the source to address the fragmentation issue, perhaps forcing updates the way Microsoft has promised to do (although it seems to have run into delays actually delivering on that ). It wouldn't start charging for Android or changing its stance on patent indemnification; it would just take back a lot more control.
Some handset makers that Google would like to attract (like, say, Nokia) are put off by the prospect of entering a market for Android handsets that look remarkably like commodities. Interestingly, when Andy Rubin claims that Android isn't commoditised, he doesn't point at the HTC Sense user interface (a good user experience that's evolved significantly from its Windows Mobile beginnings) or any other user interface improvements; his usual example is Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play PlayStation-inspired gaming phone. That's a combination of hardware and Sony assets that not many handset manufacturers have the resources to pull off and it's a world away from the plethora of cheap and cheerful (or in some cases cheap and nasty) handsets and tablets we've been seeing in the last year. While we don't think closed source would have changed Nokia's decision (the prospect of being the star of an ecosystem it can hope to dominate and realising the value of assets like Navteq is more attractive than joining the herd), if it raised the quality of Android devices and made a level playing field for developers that could explain why Eric Schmidt has predicted Nokia might one day pick Android again.
And as head of Android Andy Rubin takes control of the rumoured Google Music service for Honeycomb, a platform that Google has more control over is going to be more attractive to the record labels he needs to court. Last year Greg Peters of Netflix said the video service was reduced to dealing with individual handset manufacturers instead of releasing a single Android client; " the hurdle has been the lack of a generic and complete platform security and content protection mechanism available for Android".
The 'Icecream' release that follows Gingerbread and Honeycomb will reunite the separate handset and tablet code bases . Could it also take Android back to its roots on the Google-designed G1 phone by closing the source? Or could Google just use the threat of doing that to get premium handset manufacturers to toe the line and push updates out faster?