With its (Partially) Open Android Strategy, Google Fights Fragmentation

by Sam Dean - Apr. 08, 2011Comments (0)

One of the more divisive current open source conversations has to do with whether Google is following a truly open path with its Android mobile operating system. We've been covering the issues. Google's Andy Rubin has responded to criticism pertaining to the company's choice to give certain manufacturers of tablets access to the latest version of Android before others have access. But it's clear that some manufacturers are getting privileged access, and it was also always clear that Android would have a forked future. Now, PCMag's Sascha Segan has one of the best analyses yet on these issues, and he makes especially good points about how Google's strategy is not at all leading toward potentially destructive Android fragmentation.

Segan writes:

"Going up against Apple, the tablet leader, Google realized it needs an industry-leading UI and a consistent brand experience for Android on tablets. And open-source projects, as is well known, have serious problems creating industry leading UIs. For one thing, open-source projects tend to attract hard-core programmers who love adding features, not visual visionaries. But possibly more importantly, a great end-user experience is often about editing - about making things fit to a consistent vision, which is much easier when there's one consistent vision driving the project."

Bingo. In the Linux community, arguments have raged for years about whether Linux might benefit from unified marketing, unified interfaces, and other collaborative efforts that differ from endless forking and building of walled gardens. Segan is correct that by working with a small group of tablet makers who have privileged access to the tablet-customized version of Android, Google can steer an unforked ship for Android tablets. It can ensure that interfaces are uniform, and have input on uniform hardware designs. Segan also notes this about the current state of tablets:

"What's happened with non-Googleized Android has only proved my point about open UIs. Go look at our tablet reviews; they're a shambling, zombie-like army of bad products, with only the Samsung Galaxy Tab (designed with some Google input), Motorola Xoom (Google's flagship) and the Apple iPad standing out."

In the open source community, arguing against fragmentation can quickly raise people's ire, but it is true that part of the dominance that Apple is commanding with the iPad comes from a uniform design, tightly controlled app policies, and--in general--strong focus. The real mistake that Google keeps making isn't in playing favorites with one version of Android, but in not being transparent about doing so. The best thing for Google to do is to announce that most versions of Android are totally open for development on a level playing field, but not all of them. We'll see if the company shifts toward that level of transparency.



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