Thursday, March 31, 2011

Android not open source is suicide for Google

Since the launch of Android, two forces have been at work:

  1. Open Source, which made Android what it is today, the fastest growing OS of all time (I need data for this statement, but I am ready to bet it is true) on its way to connected devices domination (i.e. domination of the future of computing)
  2. Fragmentation, which has generated a lot of problems for developers and device manufacturers, turning into issues for end users
Of the two forces, I think #1 is the key. Android has changed the game of Operating Systems. From a model where you had to pay for the OS (Microsoft Windows) to one where the OS is free and open. Linux and the rest of the Unix variations had tried it before, but only Android made it big. Because of the Google brand and timing (there was nothing like that available, and it was badly needed).

Google does not make money on the OS. They make money if you use it.  Their goal is to make sure it is in the hands of billions of people. Their money is on advertising, through search and maps. It is working astonishingly well.

To me, fragmentation just makes the road not as smooth as one would like it to be. It makes it like a Californian highway, vs. a Northern Italian one. The former is free, the latter is expensive. The former might have bumps, the latter is perfect. Still, I prefer the Californian highway. And I get to work as fast as I would do in Italy. Actually, faster because I do not have to stop at the toll booth. Could the road be better? Sure. Does it matter to me that much? Nope, I like it free.

However, due to fragmentation, I have seen a bunch of news pop up. Scary news.

First, Honeycomb - the latest version of the Android OS - is not going to be available in open source soon. That might be ok, as long as it happens sooner rather than later. The move is meant to cut out the little ODMs which were building devices on the open source version, fragmenting it.

Today, the news is that Google is forcing licensees to abide by 'non-fragmentation clauses'. Therefore, if you are a licensee, you can build your customizations only if Andy Rubin says it is ok.

Fighting fragmentation is very important to Google. They get bugged about it on a daily basis, I am sure. However, check the current distribution of Android versions:

Android 2.x is at more than 90%. That is all you need. Some people will be always left over. After all, 11% of people still use IE6 as their browser...

I do not think fragmentation is such an issue with Android to prevent it from being the dominant force of OS in the future. I believe pissing off all your ODMs and pushing them to choose other platforms might actually do it.

Eventually, preventing fragmentation might be suicide.

Take a bit of fragmentation, keep the open source model, let people vent about it and move on.

Google, you are winning: if it ain't broken, do not fix it...