Andreas Constantinou

The darker side of Android

The darker side of Android

[Can an open Android result in a closed phone? Research Director Andreas Constantinou explains why this will not be the exception, but the rule]

Stop signThe G1, the first phone to carry the Android OS has been discussed extensively across the blogosphere. Those expecting an iPhone killer have certainly been disappointed. So have those who expected Google’s first phone to be “truly open” as Google pledged for the Android OS.

The HTC smartphone is locked to the T-Mobile network binding eager fans with a two year contract. T-Mobile won’t allow VoIP applications running on the handset either. Plus you need an GMail account to use the G1, prompting concerns about whether Google is tracking phone usage (neither confirmed nor denied at present). The phone is also pre-packaged with Google services: search, YouTube, GMail, Calendar, Maps and Streetview, as well as access to Google’s Market and Amazon’s mp3 download service.

The source code for Android will be out in Q4 under an Apache 2 license, hopefully shortly after the October 22 launch of the G1. Yet an open source operating system doesn’t mean an open phone.

The darker side of Android
Google’s Android has plenty of unique features to rave about, as we ‘ve covered earlier. But Android also has a ‘dark side’ – aspects which Google doesn’t want to talk about too much. Here’s a short list:

Not a market-ready operating system. While Google provides the source code for the entire application environment to OEMs, it leaves the hardest part of cellular stack integration to the OEM and the hardware platform providers. Stabilisation of 3G stacks is notoriously difficult and involves testing 1000s of corner cases of telephony stack integration (something which is believed to have caused significant delays for Motorola’s L-J platform).

Fragmentation by design. Android uses an Apache 2 license which allows handset OEMs to modify and ship the code without any obligation to share their modifications. At last week’s mobile open source conference in Berlin, Mike Jennings said that the Dalvik virtual machine source code would also be released under APL2. If the virtual machine is open to optimisation changes, this is sure to result in fragmentation by design and interoperability breaks. At the same time it should be noted that software licensed under non-copyleft licenses (e.g. WebKit) is known to resist forking as contributors are incentivised close to the branch where the gravity of contributions are made (Apple’s branch in the case of WebKit). Google offers an API test tool, but clearly what we need is not testing for compliance, but enforcing compliance.

Liability concerns will result in locked handsets. Android source code is promised to ship under APL2. We assume that this is the license under which the Android OS ships to OEMs. Interestingly, APL2 license explicitly disclaims any and all warranties and liabilities. In the world of mobile software, warranties and liabilities are common practice, offering OEMs to ability to pass on liabilities which result from defective software. In plain English, if an OEM needs to recall a few thousand handsets due to a software fault, they need someone to blame. With APL2, Google steers clear of the liability game and passes the burden onto the OEM to self-indemnify or seek third party insurance with expensive premiums. Moreover, OEMs who ship Android phones will not leave any liability holes open; if a third party application interferes with the handset operation, the OEM will be unwilling to pick up the tab. Which means that Android handsets will move access to several APIs off limits to developers. When I asked Mike Jennings about this at last week’s conference he declined to comment, saying he had not been briefed on this issue.

During several months of testing of Android development on the m5 (pre-beta) release, we had uncovered several additional omissions; the emulator left a lot to be wanted (incl. phone call, battery, Bluetooth and other hardware emulation) while the tools for creating UIs were rudimentary.

A key message here is that an open source operating system does not result in open phones. Google’s ‘built it and they will come’ approach does not readily apply to mobile devices for the reasons described earlier.

Clearly, Google has set the expectations too high.

– Andreas

[Update: this article was awarded ‘best post of the week‘ honours at the Carnival of the Mobilists, hosted by Xen Mendelsohn – thanks Xen!]

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