For a famously open-source platform, this decision was startling to many in the field; however, the situation isn’t as dire as it seems at the outset. For one thing, any tablet manufacturer or dev can get their hands on the code; all they have to do is ask.
[UPDATE: The image for this post has changed; please see the author’s comments.]
As a Google rep told us in an email, the Honeycomb OS was designed for the larger form factor that goes along with tablet devices; it definitely wasn’t intended for use on phones. And Honeycomb includes new features and improvements to existing features such as multi-tasking, browsing, notifications and customization.
The rep stated, “While we’re excited to offer these new features to Android tablets, we have more work to do before we can deliver them to other device types including phones. Until then, we’ve decided not to release Honeycomb to open source.”
“We’re committed to providing Android as an open platform across many device types and will publish the source as soon as it’s ready.”
In other words, this doesn’t signal a fundamental shift in everything that Android stands for; after all, the open-source mantra has been such a fundamental part of the platform’s PR that killing off that aspect of the technology would amount to Google shooting itself in the foot.
Hardly the End of Open-Source Android
Google’s isn’t locking down the source code for Froyo (Android 2.2) or Gingerbread (Android 2.3) any time soon, and it doesn’t have and intentions of keeping future releases closed, either.
And as we know, the tablet and phone forks of Android will be merged in a future release (possibly Android 4.0), which will also be open-sourced.
The “I” release, which may or may not be code-named “Ice Cream,” will combine the Gingerbread and Honeycomb capabilities, and it’s rumored to be coming this summer. We may get to learn more about Ice Cream at Google I/O this May.
Also, for developers, the Honeycomb SDK is still freely available for developing Android tablet apps. And the source code for Honeycomb is still available; it just isn’t publicly posted on the web for anyone to download.
Anyone in the Open Handset Alliance can get the source code for Android 3.0. And any person working with Android tablets can contact Google directly, sign a licensing agreement (no fees required), and get the source code that way, as well.
The Real Reason for the Decision
In short, Google is simply trying to prevent sloppy implementation of a slick OS. The company doesn’t want to see more gaffes like tablets running Froyo or earlier mobile OSes — and Google sees phones running Honeycomb as an equally inept implementation.
As we asked ourselves around the Mashable office, “Who in the world would want to put a tablet OS on a phone?”
Hackers, that’s who. And when we say “hackers,” we don’t mean the script kiddies trying to steal your bank info; rather, we refer to the creative technologists and tinkerers whose guiding principle is a question: “What’s this button do?”
While neither of these hacks would likely come to a mass market, Google might be making a legitimate argument about misunderstanding and misuse of the Honeycomb OS.
Timelines & Influences
Two questions then remain: When will the tablet OS be open-sourced, and did current Honeycomb-using manufacturers who happen to be particularly close to Google (here’s lookin’ at you, Motorola) have anything to do with the decision?
The Google rep we spoke to was unable to comment on specific timelines or Google’s decision-making process, but we did reach out to Android dev and Android blogger Fred Grott for his take on the matter.
We noted earlier that Ice Cream was expected to arrive between May and later in the summer of 2011. Grott noted, “I would hazard a guess that the Android phone-tablet port is due out this summer, and the source would be open to public this fall.”
He also said that at Mobile World Congress, the more cutting-edge devices with NFC tech were not running the most recent versions of Android for mobile devices, which hints that manufacturers may be lagging in adoption of the newest releases.
“What I gather from what Google has stated,” Grott continued, “is that they want the Honeycomb port to the phone branch correct and right the first time to head off any manufacturer customizations of the UI and finally nip that part of fragmentation in the bud.”
Grott also said that dealing with those OS customizations is a pain point for manufacturers; they have to rewrite native apps, and they don’t get any kickbacks from carriers for doing so.
Also, for manufacturers, carriers, Google and the community of Android tablet consumers, having a partially closed door for OS customizations helps breed a culture of trust. It’s not the closely guarded world of iOS, but it’s also not an unpredictable, anything-goes free-for-all. And in the new, new arena of Android tablets, that might be a good and solidifying factor.
This might chafe FOSS advocates mightily, but it’s likely in Google’s best interest for the time being. Let us know what you think about Google’s decision and reasoning.
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