The open-source nature of Google's Android operating system means that just about anybody can pick up the underlying source, adapt it for their own use and contribute bugfixes patches back to the main source tree if they feel inclined to. However, it seems that this close relationship between Google and the open-source community might be about to take a turn for the worse: various sources have suggested that Google might be deliberately withholding the source code for the latest version of Android, also known as Honeycomb. What could be happening here?
Many people might have different interpretations of what actually constitutes an open-source project. However, it does not change the fact that anything released under an open-source or free software license is required to release its underlying source code in order to allow other developers the chance to study, adapt, and where applicable, make changes to the codes for the benefit of both users and programmers.
Which, for the most part, are characteristics which describes Google's Android operating system to a T. After all, Android's open-source nature has resulted in Android users having a large variety of custom ROMs to play around with, courtesy of the hacking community. However, it seems that this cosy relationship between Google and the hacker community is about to hit a snag: a report published by BusinessWeek has revealed that the search giant is not about to release the source code for Honeycomb to the open-source community for the "foreseeable future".
According to Google, the reason it is refusing to release the source code for Honeycomb is due to the fact that the aforementioned build of Android was specially developed for a specific class of devices; tablet PCs. The search giant fears that, by open-sourcing Honeycomb, the hacker community will attempt to re-purpose the operating system for devices it was never meant to be used on, which will have an adverse impact on end-user experience.
"To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs," said Andy Rubin, vice-president for engineering at Google and head of its Android group. He added that they "did not want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones", as it would have required "a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable".
"So we took a shortcut," he said.
In some ways, Google's fear is very real. After all, enterprising tablet OEMs had attempted to port early builds of Android over to tablets, and the result was that the end-user experience was anything but spectacular. While later versions of the Android operating system such as Froyo were robust enough to scale up with the large displays of tablet PCs with little issue, it is clear that Google does not want to deal with similar issues about Honeycomb potentially playing nasty with non-tablet devices such as smartphones, set-top boxes or even vehicles.
Needless to say, Google's move has sparked off a fierce debate about the legality of its decision, with open-source and free software enthusiasts claiming that the various licenses Android is currently released under explicitly prohibits the withholding of source code. However, the search giant has attempted to address the community's ire by confirming that the status quo for the overall Android ecosystem remains unchanged, and that the Android project will always be open-source.