Google’s Android operating system has long been portrayed as the “open” alternative to Apple iOS and most other mobile operating systems. While Google typically works on new versions of Android behind closed doors, the company also typically releases the source code to device makers and the public at some point, allowing anyone to customize the operating system and use it how they see fit, free of charge. But according to DigiTimes and Business Week that may be changing.
We’ve already seen Google delay the release of the source code for Google Android 3.0 Honeycomb, in part to prevent device makers from porting the tablet-friendly operating systems to smartphones since it’s not really designed for that platform. But the company has been working with some hardware makers including Motorola to grant early access to Honeycomb in order to bring tablets to market. The new reports suggest that if companies want early access to Honeycomb and other new versions of Android, they’ll need to agree to “non-fragmentation” stipulations that allow Google to decide whether to allow proposed modifications.
That could mean that device makers will either have to run all of their design decisions by Google or delay the launch of their products by several months or more. That doesn’t sound very “open,” does it?
Meanwhile, the DigiTimes report suggests that Google may be working with chip designer ARM on a standard platform for Android tablets. In other words, if you don’t have supported hardware, you may not be able to run Android. Of course, once the source code is released, there’s little stopping anyone from recompiling it to run on officially unsupported hardware. But there’s no telling at this point when the Honeycomb source code will be available to the public.
It’s worth noting that both the Business Week and DigiTimes articles are based on interviews with unnamed sources, so you might want to take everything with a grain of salt. It’s also worth noting that if everything stated in the articles it’s certainly a slap in the face to the open source community — but not necessarily to the average user.
The move would represent Google’s attempt to provide a more standardized Android experience across devices, which could make it easier to market Android tablets and phones as true alternatives to Apple’s iPad and iPhone models. Right now, it’s not really enough to compare operating systems — you also have to compare the hardware. A $200 Archos Arnova 10 isn’t going to provide the same kind of user experience as a $600 Motorola XOOM. In the future though, the performance gap might not be as big.