Honeycomb tests Google's 'Open Principles'

Google's decision to withhold Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" from the open-source community is nothing but shocking. From a business perspective, the company's reasons make sense. But Google has put principles before business before, like its stance with China or H.264 support. There is also the broader question of leadership and what the move means, if anything, about Eric Schmidt soon stepping down as CEO and Google cofounder Larry Page replacing him. There's a new sheriff in town. Will he enforce the law differently?

Google dropped the Honeycomb bomb late yesterday. In a statement the company said that Honeycomb "was designed from the ground up for devices with larger screen sizes and 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."

That's Google's business justification, and there's some sense to it, given that Google has indicated that sometime in the future Android 2.x (for smartphones) and Android 3.x (for tablets) will come together. Right now, features are disparate. Google has more work to do.

"Until then, we've decided not to release Honeycomb to open source," according to the statement. "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."

But from another perspective, if Honeycomb is shipping on tablets now isn't it ready?

Who's Being Closed Now?

Free-market wonks will defend Google's right to do whatever the hell it wants with its own code. They would be right. But Google also has repeatedly used so-called "Open Principles" to cut into competitors for being closed. So who's being closed now? From another perspective, Google could work with the open-source community to rapidly improve Honeycomb and bring together its two major mobile operating systems. Such an approach would better resonate with Google's longstanding position about openness.

Google's statement suggests concern that Honeycomb would end up on smartphones. Oh yeah? Mobile device manufacturers take a long time bringing new products to market. Look at recent tablet delays like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or late launches, like the HTC EVO View 4G on Sprint. Smartphones take just as long getting to market -- and look how many run older Android versions (earlier than v2.3). There's not a helluva lot of chance that risk-adverse carriers or handset manufacturers will rush to put Honeycomb on smartphones. Google's problem is the opposite -- getting the newest Android version on devices. The "it's not ready" excuse doesn't make much sense from that perspective or potential cooperation from the open-source community.

No question, solving the fragmentation problem should be near the top of Google's Android development priorities. There should never have been digression in the first place. From the start, Google should have had one Android version for all form factors. Chrome OS is coming soon, too, and that will make three Google operating systems.

In context of competition -- from iPad 2, which goes on sale in 25 more countries today, or Amazon appstore for Android, which opened this week -- Google has very good business reasons for reassessing its operating system objectives. These reasons have little, if anything, to do with Google's long-stated position on openness.

Is it a Contradiction?

To be clear, I'm not advocating for open source here but pointing out the contradiction with respect to Google's oft-stated position about its principles. In December 2009 blog post "The Meaning of Open" Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president of Google Product Management, writes: "We believe that open systems win." Oh yeah? Then why is Google taking a closed-system approach to Honeycomb, even if it's supposed to be temporary? He writes:

The conventional wisdom goes that companies should lock in customers to lock out competitors. There are different tactical approaches -- razor companies make the razor cheap and the blades expensive, while the old IBM made the mainframes expensive and the software; expensive too. Either way, a well-managed closed system can deliver plenty of profits. They can also deliver well-designed products in the short run -- the iPod and iPhone being the obvious examples -- but eventually innovation in a closed system tends towards being incremental at best (is a four blade razor really that much better than a three blade one?) because the whole point is to preserve the status quo. Complacency is the hallmark of any closed system. If you don't have to work that hard to keep your customers, you won't.

Open systems are just the opposite. They are competitive and far more dynamic. In an open system, a competitive advantage doesn't derive from locking in customers, but rather from understanding the fast-moving system better than anyone else and using that knowledge to generate better, more innovative products. The successful company in an open system is both a fast innovator and a thought leader; the brand value of thought leadership attracts customers and then fast innovation keeps them. This isn't easy -- far from it -- but fast companies have nothing to fear, and when they are successful they can generate great shareholder value.

Open systems have the potential to spawn industries. They harness the intellect of the general population and spur businesses to compete, innovate, and win based on the merits of their products and not just the brilliance of their business tactics. The race to map the human genome is one example.

Please see my December 2009 analysis of Google's Open Principles for broader perspective.

Two months ago, when announcing it would end support for H.264 in Chrome, Google cited its Open Principles. "We expect even more rapid innovation in the web media platform in the coming year and are focusing our investments in those technologies that are developed and licensed based on open web principles," Mike Jazayeri, Chromium product manager, asserts in a blog post. "Though H.264 plays an important role in video, as our goal is to enable open innovation, support for the codec will be removed and our resources directed towards completely open codec technologies." Simply stated: H.264 isn't open enough for Google, even though the codec is widely used on the web. But it could also be rightly argued that Google selectively used its Open Principles for its own benefit.

Regardless, Google has taken a closed approach to Honeycomb in defiance of its own principles about open systems and and open information. Or was Google ever really open? Then there is the greater context of leadership and Page replacing Schmidt. Schmidt is who I would expect to be more pro-business than Page. But with the CEO change imminent, every major move regarding business practices should be looked at in context of new leadership.

This is a great topic for debate. Please answer in comments. Starting by answering: Was Google ever truly open?

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