Taking back Android: Should Google be controlling the ecosystem?

The Android ecosystem is becoming unruly and Google naturally wants to step in to preserve its quality - but is that Google's role in the bigger picture?
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive on

Certainly, Google's latest controversy surrounding the Android operating system is giving critics plenty of ammunition to question the company's commitment to a truly "open" operating system.

Bloomberg last week reported that Google is tightening the reins on Android, limiting some of the freedoms that carriers and device makers have had with the mobile OS in the past - such as customizing the software, forming partnerships around the ecosystem or gaining early access to software updates. Now, anything that will be associated with Android will reportedly need approval from Google.

To a certain extent, the criticisms are deserving. Google talked a good talk about being truly open when Android first hit the scene just a few years ago - and now the company is being compared to Apple, known for its controlling hand over all things iOS.

But things have started to become unruly in the Android ecosystem. Having multiple device makers and carriers in the portfolio can help fuel growth but it can also create confusion as it leads to a flood of apps and even versions of the OS compromising the experience.

The Bloomberg post quotes John Lagerling, director of global Android partnerships at Google, who said that the company is focused on quality control and is building toward a "common denominator" before it allows companies to start adding, rearranging or otherwise customizing the OS.

In other words, Google feels that it has an obligation to deliver the best possible product, right? That doesn't sound so unreasonable, especially to a consumer who wants the best possible user experience instead of one that was rushed or, worse yet, released too early.

But one of the problems is that Google isn't actually selling a product. It's providing a platform that relies on the likes of Motorola, HTC, Verizon, Sprint and others to deliver quality products to the end-user. It tried to sell a product - remember the Nexus One? - but that didn't really work out the way it had been envisioned.

Dare I say that, as the platform maker, you can't always preserve the quality of your product - especially if you'll let anyone develop on its open platform? Just ask Microsoft.

Maybe the bigger question here has less to do with Google's efforts to reign in the Android ecosystem and more to do with Google's exact role - and the expectations that go with it in the Android ecosystem? Certainly these devices out there - whether tablet or phone - are Google devices just as much as they are Motorola devices or Sprint devices.

But how much of a role - or responsibility - should Google have in the larger equation? And, more importantly to some, can Android be "truly open" if Google keeps a heavy hand on it? Certainly, Google should be asking itself these sorts of questions - especially as Android's popularity continues to grow.

There are all sorts of other issues that make the controversy that much more juicy - favortism, competition and even the Justice Department, all put out there in the Bloomberg report. But the idea of Google defining its role in this larger mobile environment is one that should try to be answered early - if not first.

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