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Honeycomb delay deepens concerns over control of Android experience

The danger of open source is that a platform becomes fragmented and the implementations can be of varying quality

By PETER WHITE

Published: 31 March, 2011

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The danger of open source is that a platform becomes fragmented and the implementations can be of varying quality. Google has been talking for a year about unifying the Android user experience again, though it has been wary of clamping down too firmly on its partners’ customized activities, for fear of alienating support.

There were many reports that Android 3.0 or Honeycomb, which is currently targeted only at tablets, would impose stricter rules over the UI, even possibly restricting vendor overlays like HTC Sense and Motoblur. That has not happened and would be a dangerous game to play with powerful OEMs – even Microsoft, which has taken that stance for WP7, has been forced to compromise to get Nokia on board. But for device makers further down the food chain, Google does seem to be limiting their freedom of action in order to create consistent quality standards and user experience for Android tablets – but with obvious weakening of the platform’s open source credentials.

Google has decided to delay broad release of Honeycomb, a move that has reawakened fury over a ‘two-tier approach.’ Developers and OEMs claim that, in a truly open source environment, they should get equal access to new releases, but in fact, Google is restricting Honeycomb, for now, to its primary partners, such as Motorola, HTC and Samsung. This is having the knock-on effect of limiting the numbers of apps available specifically tailored to large-screen Honeycomb (there are only about 100 according to some reports).

Google said it was holding back on general release of Honeycomb’s open source code because it still had “more work to do” before the OS was ready for "other device types including phones.” But this is not just about reuniting Android, with a single version applicable to small and large screens. Many Android supporters want to use it for tablets, just like Motorola and co, but will now have to wait for an unspecified time to be able to go beyond the basic reference design. Lack of access to the code will make it harder to differentiate products and, given that there may be an update to Honeycomb before year end, they will have little time to get a return on their investment.

A large mobile vendor from Taiwan complained to EETimes: “Google refused to give out any information about Honeycomb, and the end result was no one could deviate from the reference design.”

Google’s aim is clearly to ensure quality control but the firm has some tough choices ahead – whether to stick to its open source credentials and continue to draw on the benefits of a huge open development community; or whether to ensure that the Android brand is consistent and well regarded, like Apple’s, which means asserting full control over the platform, who can use it and what they can do to change it.

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