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April 5th, 2011

Is Google Marketing Linux-BSD?

Is is just me, or does Google look more and more like Microsoft/Apple with each passing day?

When Google introduced Linux based Android a few years back, they bent over backwards to proclaim their commitment to openness, going so far as to proclaim openness as Android’s advantage over Apple’s iOS. Here was an operating system that device manufacturers could tweek and tailor to suit their own needs. Not only that, with the source code freely available, this would be an operating system that could be easily modified by the user. Nobody would have to jailbreak an Android device, because after you bought it, it would be yours. It would be free, as in speech, not as in beer.


The openness of Android seems to have paid off for Google and the various makers of Android devices. On Friday, comScore announced that Android’s share of the mobile market grew by 7% between November and February, compared with a 0.2% gain for iOS, with RIM’s Blackberry actually seeing a 0.2% drop in usage. According to the report, one out of three mobile devices in use is running some implementation of Android.

You would think that such figures would put Google fully into the free and open camp, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Indeed, Google announced on March 24th that their commitment to openness will not extend to version 3.0, Honeycomb, their version for tablets, at least temporarily. Google claims this is because Honeycomb, while ready to deploy on tablets, is not ready to run on handheld devices like cell phones.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported at the time of Google’s announcement:

“In the past, Google has given device makers early access to versions of Android so they could work on their products. It would then typically release the source code to the masses a few months later, letting all comers do what they want with the code. HTC, Samsung Electronics, Motorola Mobility Holdings, and other big manufacturers already have access to Honeycomb.

“It’s the throngs of smaller hardware makers and software developers that will now have to wait for the software. The delay will probably be several months. ‘To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs,’ says Andy Rubin, vice-president for engineering at Google and head of its Android group. ‘We didn’t want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut.’

“Rubin says that if Google were to open-source the Honeycomb code now, as it has with other versions of Android at similar periods in their development, it couldn’t prevent developers from putting the software on phones ‘and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones.’

Since Linux is released using version 2 of the GPL, this might not violate the license so long as Honeycomb is only released embedded on devices and no binary version is made available. However, just because it meets the letter of the law doesn’t mean it’s in keeping with open source values, which we would expect from the lip service Google’s been giving to their commitment to openness.

Joe Wilcox, writing on Betanews, noted this apparent hyprocracy the day after Google announced they wouldn’t be releasing the source code for Honeycomb anytime soon:

“Free-market wonks will defend Google’s right to do whatever the hell it wants with its own code. They would be right. But Google also has repeatedly used so-called ‘Open Principles’ to cut into competitors for being closed. So who’s being closed now? From another perspective, Google could work with the open-source community to rapidly improve Honeycomb and bring together its two major mobile operating systems. Such an approach would better resonate with Google’s longstanding position about openness.

“Google’s statement suggests concern that Honeycomb would end up on smartphones. Oh yeah? Mobile device manufacturers take a long time bringing new products to market. Look at recent tablet delays like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or late launches, like the HTC EVO View 4G on Sprint. Smartphones take just as long getting to market — and look how many run older Android versions (earlier than v2.3). There’s not a helluva lot of chance that risk-adverse carriers or handset manufacturers will rush to put Honeycomb on smartphones. Google’s problem is the opposite — getting the newest Android version on devices. The ‘it’s not ready’ excuse doesn’t make much sense from that perspective or potential cooperation from the open-source community.

Personally, I think that if Google’s really serious about their creed to “do no evil,” they should quit playing games with the GPL and release the source code. If they don’t want to do that, then they should port the whole damn thing over to one of the BSDs and do whatever the hell they want with it, because it ain’t open source if it ain’t open source.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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2 comments to Is Google Marketing Linux-BSD?

  • This is Google’s mess that they themselves got into years ago when they refused to think the marketing angle through. Marketing has never been Google’s strong suit. Many of their products, I believe, have gone unnoticed and floundered due to a huge lack of marketing. Not everything Google does can survive off of word-of-mouth alone.

    Now, Google sees their brand being tarnished by the carriers (carriers selling Froyo devices while it was still in beta, carriers disallowing OS updates are examples) and selling devices as a “Google Phone.” And now they decide to try to rectify the problem with this ill-advised maneuver.

    But at the end of the day, the average consumer won’t care. They just want to get their Gowalla on.

  • Rickard

    “If they don’t want to do that, then they should port the whole damn thing over to one of the BSDs and do whatever the hell they want with it, because it ain’t open source if it ain’t open source”

    What do you think BSD is then?
    It is also open source.

    Well, this is bad by Google. But there will be enough to do the right thing sooner or later, they would obviously not run their own forck, and will do everything they can to get everything in mainline.

    /Rickard