When Google announced a new version of its Android mobile OS designed specifically for tablet devices, there was some confusion about whether the OS would make its way to Android-based smartphones too. This past week, however, details emerged about Google's plans, and despite the supposed open-source nature of Android, the company has decided to lock down this tablet OS—called Honeycomb—at least for the foreseeable future.
"To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs," said Google Vice President Andy Rubin, who heads the company's Android efforts. "We didn't want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut."
Generally, when Google releases new versions of Android, it also releases the source code to the public with an open-source license. With Honeycomb, however, that release is being delayed, though Google says it will eventually open up Honeycomb too. "We have not changed our strategy," Rubin claims. "Android is an open-source project."
Open-source advocates, however, are furious at this stretching of the "open source" definition, and at the apparent hypocrisy of a multi-billion-dollar international corporation suddenly keeping key intellectual property for its own use, if only temporarily. But this is a dance that all successful, commercial entities have to engage in if they choose the open-source route. More often than not, the needs of high-minded enthusiasts and pragmatic businessmen diverge.
The delay in opening up Honeycomb speaks, I think, to a more important issue for the Android community: fragmentation. The Android market is already horribly fragmented between several different Android OS versions, creating a patchwork of different device types with different software capabilities. By forking development yet again for a tablet-specific OS, Google is fragmenting Android even further, and that's true whether Honeycomb is opened up or not. (Prior to the Honeycomb announcement, several hardware makers introduced tablets based on the smartphone version of Android, too.)
Google also has yet another OS, Chrome OS, waiting in the wings. That system is designed for PC-type netbooks, notebooks, and possibly even desktop computers, and could compete head-to-head with Microsoft's dominant Windows OS. But with at least three general-purpose OSs in the works, Google's biggest competitor might ultimately be itself, and many wonder when the company will simply realize the inevitable and roll them all into a single code base.