What Does Google Owe FOSS?

Mobile device developers are in a holding pattern with plans to plug in the much-awaited Google Android 3.0 upgrade. The delay is causing some bad feelings in the FOSS (Free Open Source Software) community. But it is unlikely that Google will carry many scars from the dispute.

Claiming it needs more time to solve technical glitches, Google recently announced that it was delaying the promised release of code for Honeycomb, the Android 3.0 operating system.

The delay in releasing the code has some mobile product developers worried that Google might recant and keep Honeycomb out of the open source inventory altogether. A more likely outcome could be a rift in the Android ranks. That scenario would see newer products running a restricted or closed source Android OS with better functionality than the existing open source Android devices.

So far, Google has remained tight lipped about how it views its obligations to the FOSS community. This silence could raise more questions about what the company’s expectations are for a continued free access relationship with mobile device makers.

“Google is going to do what is in Google’s best interest financially. That’s it. And Apple is going to do what Apple is going to do. That’s what all these companies do. I don’t think they [Google] view it as an obligation to anything. They may adhere to their corporate byline of ‘do no evil.’ I don’t buy that for a second,” Jason Katz, founder and CEO of Paltalk.com, told LinuxInsider.

Google Says

In explaining the code release delay, Google officials said that they designed Android 3.0, aka “Honeycomb,” from the ground up for devices with larger screen sizes. Android 3.0 improves on Android favorites such as widgets, multi-tasking, browsing, notifications and customization.

“While we’re excited to offer these new features to Android tablets, we have more work to do before we can deliver them to other device types including phones. Until then, we’ve decided not to release Honeycomb to open source,” Google spokesperson Gina Weakely told LinuxInsider.

The company declined a request to discuss the situation in more detail, she added.

“We’re committed to providing Android as an open platform across many device types and will publish the source as soon as it’s ready,” Weakley said.

Divided Loyalties?

Ultimately, Google will make good on its promise to keep the Android 3 code in the public realm, believes Karl Fogel, a member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) board of directors. He offered that view as his own rather than an official representation of OSI, however.

Google’s public statements about its overall Android strategy seem plausible and internally consistent to him, he noted. Still, he does not discount the notion that two Android pathways could be emerging.

“Of course, I’d much prefer that they just run the project entirely as open source all the time, instead of having two separate projects — an open source one and a proprietary one — that are linked together by frequent code exchanges,” Fogel told LinuxInsider.

Shrewed Strategy?

One developer’s delay could become another company’s strategic marketing plan, suggested Fogel. He is not convinced that the delay is not contrived.

“Google is delaying the Honeycomb open source release in order to prevent what they view as lower-quality derivatives from reaching the market for a while, but this does not represent any reversal of their general Android open source strategy,” explained Fogel.

He sees the Honeycomb code release delay as a continuation of the strategy Google has been using all along — only this time around, it’s just with a bigger and more platform-specific delay, he said.

Or Just Careful?

It is really just a matter of resources and timing, Paltalk.com’s Katz believes. His company uses Android versions it produced for its real-time, rich media, interactive social networking. But he would prefer that Google keep the faith sooner rather than later.

“I think it’s really difficult to roll out all these changes across all of these platforms so quickly. We see that on the dev side too,” Katz noted. “What they want to do is obviously dominate the operating system. I think they’ve done a hell of a good job with that,” said Katz about how Google has handled the release of Android.

Google’s corporate goal is to make money for the shareholders, he added. He does not see that as particularly wrong.

No Land of Deceit

“I think what might be wrong is representing it one way and actually executing it another way,” Katz cautioned.

Still, he is giving Google the benefit of the doubt about the company not having a misleading motivation in delaying the code release. The Herculean task of fitting Android 3.0 onto all the different platforms is hard to do, he reasoned.

“Unlike Apple, Google has not locked [its platform] to any one hardware. That is what will constrain Apple, at least in the phone market. I would expect that to happen in the tablet market too, but it might take a little bit longer,” Katz concluded.

Complexity Counts

Under the surface, Android is pretty complex. It is made of of over 80,000 files and consumes 2GB of code. It has more than one dozen different software licenses. It has 165 different components, according to Peter Vescuso, the senior vice president of marketing and business development for software firm Black Duck.

“I don’t think Google would want to delay the code release for Honeycomb. I think it is legitimate technical delays that caused this,” Vescuso told LinuxInsider.

The complexity issue has to count for the delay’s legitimacy, he noted. For example, Google had to rush the code out to Motorola and a few other customers. So he tends to believe Google’s claims for the delay, said Vescuso.

Reputation Matters

Google has more at stake than rushing the code out the door to avoid criticism. Google’s business relies heavily on the company’s relationship with the open source community, according to Vescuso.

“They don’t want to harm that. I don’t see this delay as killing that relationship. I don’t see this as any stalling tactic,” he asserted. “It’s better that Google get it right and then release it.”

The Glory Trail

Even if Google’s decision to withhold the Honeycomb code for a while is legit, the Android creator still faces a bloody nose or two from the dispute with developers. So regardless of how well-meaning Google’s decision may have been, there will be a price to pay for the transgression to the development community.

Google realizes how important its relationship with the dev community is, Vescuso emphasized. He does not think the company would do anything intentionally to hurt that.

“The expectations are that the code is available all the time. This isn’t going to help them. This is not a positive for them to have a delay,” he said.

Matter of Degrees

Like it or not, product developers have few options besides waiting Google out. Google’s code release delay will not push potential device makers away.

“Regarding a rising backlash towards Google in the FOSS community, I’m not sure there is one. Of course, some people complained, and one can’t really blame them. But I don’t sense a general backlash going on,” offered OSI’s Fogel.

Still, the delayed code release is going to be a bit of an issue for Google, warned Black Duck’s Vescuso. The product developers’ expectation is that the code is available to them all the time, he said.

The attitude of developers is based on being able to do what they want with it and having access to it, he explained.

“I can’t think of any other instance where you had this type of situation with a major project,” Vescuso added.

Fear Factor

How long Google keeps withholding the Honeycomb code could determine the likelihood of a fork in the Android roadway, according to Vescuso. But he does not see developers flocking to a closed Honeycomb system.

The delay might also encourage developers to go elsewhere. For example, Paltalk.com’s Katz noted that his company is not cooling its heals waiting around for Google to release the Android 3.0 code.

Instead, his developers have numerous other developmental projects to keep the company moving forward. Now they are doing the development for phones and tablets and various other form factors, he said.

1 Comment

  • You ARE gonna get burnt by Google, the ONLY question is when! How do I know, why do you think that Google has gone out of their way to avoid ANY and all GPL V3? Why do you think that is? Because thanks to TiVo GPL V2 might as well be BSD!

    You see thanks to the "TiVo Trick" they can give you…well…anything they want, its not like you’ll be able to run it on the device to see, now will you? Thanks to eFuses and code signing GPL V2 is WORTHLESS with a capital W!

    So please, if you rally do believe in the four freedoms you should be moving ALL code away from GPL V2 as fast as possible! Otherwise all you have done is worked long and hard for absolutely nothing. The corps can and will take your code at ANY time, and thanks to TiVo tricking you can’t do a thing about it! Who cares if you have the code if it is written for a device you can’t modify or run it on?

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