Do You Still Care That Android is Open Sourced? (Op-Ed)

It’s the last quarter of 2011, and Google has barely three years in the Android can.  I started thinking about this in the last few weeks and especially after writing my last article and why Android is successful.  Is it still important that Android is an open source operating system?  It seems that the only interested people in the “open sourceness” are the modders.  Which in itself is a good thing, but where are all of the Android committers?  Where is the peer review of the operating system that makes the successful free and open source software (FOSS) projects actual businesses?  It may have been more pure in the beginning but it had not hit the big time yet or become the Droid juggernaut from Verizon.  I believe that is more important that it is free than it is open sourced.  Que the conspiracy theories and menacing orchestral music.

“The term open source describes practices in production and development that promote access to the end product’s source materials. Some consider open source a philosophy, others consider it a pragmatic methodology. Before the term open source became widely adopted, developers and producers used a variety of phrases to describe the concept; open source gained hold with the rise of the Internet, and the attendant need for massive retooling of the computing source code. Opening the source code enabled a self-enhancing diversity of production models, communication paths, and interactive communities.[1] Subsequently, the new phrase “open-source software” was born to describe the environment that the new copyrightlicensingdomain, and consumer issues created.” – Sourced from the all knowing Wikipedia.

Android is ubiquitous because it is free and not because it is open source.  Except for the popular Cyanogen mods, the FOSS aspect has largely been ignored by most of the ODM’s.  Witness the poor implementations of Android devices by Archos, Augen, Camangi, and countless other Tier Three AKA Chinese manufacturers and the animosity towards UI’s like Sense and MotoBLUR.  If the FOSS was so easy to take advantage of then why are only a handful of developers able to deliver a customer experience that was comparable to Google’s?  And even Cyanogen AKA Steve Kondik only bothered to modify the ‘with Google’ version.

A true open sourced and free version would not have any differences that any other manufacturers have.  If Google was out to ensure that every available handset and tablet ran ‘the real’ Android then they would not stand in the way of all devices running the most current version with all of the bells and whistles including the Android Market.

The delivery model for software availability is not predicated on open source but for popularity and usability.  For manufacturers to have the source code does not make the experience better but enables them to write software for open API’s and even change the OS to custom fit theirs and the user’s needs.  A good example of an OS being widely distributed is Windows XP.  As we know, it is not open sourced yet there are thousands of applications that have been developed for XP.  Because Microsoft has deliberately made their OS’es easy to be accessed by developers.

Check out Ballmer’s now infamous developer chant.


It seems counter intuitive to Google’s mantra of “do no evil” that Android would be handicapped for development except for the blessed versions.  And while we are on the subject, Honeycomb not being open sourced is a trivial matter if it is hard to develop apps for.  There are two outcomes to the mobile war and it will be for local apps versus web HTML5 browser versions.  Google seems to want it both ways but by standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous.  It puzzles me that they are not lining up in the HTML5 camp since they are so web centric.  Apple is moving the iOS browser in the right direction while still doing well selling apps but the future of the web is true mobility and the only way to have a platform agnostic platform is via the browser.  Do we really want to buy devices based on what apps are available for THAT platform?  Good examples of this are Flipboard and instagram, both immensely popular and great iOS apps but do we really need further splintering of platforms based on carriers AND apps?

But back to the task at hand.  Do you care that Android is open source?  Does it have anything to do with your buying power as a consumer on what you decide to use?   I contend that 99.99% of people out there have less than zero knowledge about software and developer technologies that makes Android a more powerful platform than its competition.   I think that Android’s open source moniker has worn out its welcome.  It use to be a differentiator but it is now a marketing term.

While I remain eager and excited to see the newer versions of Android, I am more interested in seeing how Google will continue to play a big part in the mobile space as they don’t as much as compete but actually set policy in the market.  But so does Apple.  I choose to continue to use Android over anything else because of its robustness and flexibility, although I must admit that the Competition is heating up and they are looking pretty good.  But this is all the more reason Google needs to be more competitive and push the limits with upcoming versions.

  • I think this is dead wrong. Anyone who hangs out on can see how incredibly large and diverse the Android development community is. A very large part of this is possible because of the Linux kernel and Android core both being open source. 

    For comparison, you  have to look no further than the incredible derth of honeycomb custom ROMs compared to Gingerbread ones. If the code being open does not matter, then how come there are so many fewer ROMs for closed code bases?

    ” If the FOSS was so easy to take advantage of then why are only a handful of developers able to deliver a customer experience that was comparable to Google’s? ” > This quote is misguided. The reason manufacturers roll their own skin has nothing to do with if they have the ABILITY to run stock Android – they simply DO NOT WANT TO. It is the opinion of these manufacturers that their own branding is very important (IE a way to make their phone “stand out” from other Android phones) 

    • Brian Crockford

      I agree with you completely. Furthermore, when Google released a version of Gingerbread to the Nexus One which had a battery-crippling bug in it, I was able to switch to a custom ROM which had already had a fix. Wouldn’t have been possible without access to the source, and much better than enduring 6-hour battery life until Google got around to fixing it.

  • Elvis

    I think it’s awesome and important that its open source, ESPECIALLY seeing as phone companies ruin android still at this point (they ARE getting better though)

  • Quentin Dewolf

    it is necessary to show that allowing freedoms can make success as opposed to closed controlled environments. perception is everything. it is not necessary for those freedoms to be exercised for their benefit to exist. androids rise can be attributed to the open attitude of the os (no limitations on device, content, use and so on).

  • Andrew Hasara

    It matters a great deal to me, even though I am not  “developer”.  The open source nature of Android allows faster modding, improvements through larger projects like Cyanogenmod, and the ability to compatibility between different developer projects.  Compare this to the stagnant growth that was typical of Windows Mobile, and how trying to move feature from one phone to another would break compatibility with some apps.  Then compare this to the iPhones walled garden and proprietary iOS.  Android’s openness makes it easier for manufacturer to come up with diverse features (like HDMI output on the Evo 4G) before the OS is “optimized” for it.  It’s openness is the reason why there are so many choices in android phones, and Google’s efforts to reign in the diversity is necessary to keep them all compatible.  

  • James

    A better article might have been titled “IS Android still open source?”  Google released the Gingerbread source back in December of 2010, and has refused to release Honeycomb’s source.  They promise to release the Ice Cream Sandwich source but that is probably months away if it happens.  What kind of open source project withholds it’s newest versions for a year?

  • I’m far from a developer, but I dabble in technology. I wouldn’t have been much more attracted to android than to the strongest competitor, iPhone, were it not open sourced.
    I “fix” most of my friends phones whenever they have a need, and the first thing I usually like to do is get it rooted and throw on a custom rom that fits their mobile lifestyle. All of them like their phones infinitely better after I’ve removed the OEM bloatware and given them 1-3 hours more battery life.

    Being open-source has only been reduced to a pitch-point because no one cares to find out what terminology like that means anymore, people don’t buy a dual core processor because they know what it can do, they buy it because they know 2 sounds better than 1.
    But just because the general public wouldn’t understand why open-sourcedness is a good thing, doesn’t mean that, when the time of need arises, they wouldn’t be happy as a clam that they didn’t sell their souls to Jobs just to have support on their devices.

  • Lawrence D’Oliveiro

    I agree with all the comments saying yes, it is important that Android is open-source. Customizing that source is not some fringe or minority activity, it’s something that benefits lots of users: Samsung proved this when it GAVE its Samsung Galaxy S II phones to the top guys at CyanogenMod. The publicity and good feelings it got from that were priceless.

    And speaking as an Android developer, I have found it invaluable to be able to refer to the source to clarify points that are not well explained in the documentation. So far I have avoided Honeycomb, because it doesn’t seem to be all that popular. I am waiting to see if Google live up to their promise to release the Ice Cream Sandwich source.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I do. But not as much as I used to. I’m more interested in having a great out-of-box experience – an experience I’d be glad to let my mother use.

    I love the fact that I can tinker around with Android, but I find that I don’t have as much time to do so. Switching launchers changing cameras, I dig that stuff. But, if I had to choose between that and having great battery life and a stable system, then I’d choose the latter in a heartbeat.

  • Anonymous

    I use android because it supports many database apps like AccessReflex, cellica. So android will be my selection

  • KevinG

    I wouldnt say people dont care at all, id say the open source idea is catching on in places you never would expect. Heck, even NPR recently had a story on how you could root your nook.