Google really doesn’t want Honeycomb on phones, won’t open-source it anytime soon
In an interesting, and perhaps unforeseen development, Google has told BusinessWeek that it won’t open-source Android 3.0 Honeycomb anytime soon. In fact, it will postpone the operating system’s open-sourcing for the foreseeable future.
This is how Google’s Android development usually works: a new version is developed in-house, with no access for outside developers or interested parties. Then at some point, it’s officially announced. After a short while, it becomes available as a software update for the Nexus devices. After a few weeks from that point, the new release is open-sourced, meaning that developers (both independent, and those working for Google’s hardware partners) can start using the bits found in the new release. Sure, there are exceptions. Gingerbread, for example, took a lot longer than usual to make it onto the Nexus One. And in some cases (the original Motorola Droid, and both Nexus phones, for example) certain hardware partners/phone manufacturers are given early access to a new version of Android while it’s still under development. But that’s generally the gist of it.
So after Google released Android 3.0 Honeycomb, obviously, as it’s a tablet-optimized version, while no one expected it to make it onto the Nexus phones, people have been eagerly awaiting its open-sourcing. Only we now know that that won’t happen for quite a while. In fact, it may never happen. Let me explain.
With Honeycomb, Google has effectively forked Android development into two separate branches, one for smartphones (still on 2.x), and one for tablets, represented by 3.0 up until now. This has been anticipated last year, and we’ve reported that it will happen. Google presumably started working on (or at least thinking about) an alternative to Apple’s iPad since that was released, but Honeycomb apparently took a lot longer to develop than Google expected. Or, better put, the tablet-specific optimizations in Honeycomb did. And time was passing, the year was already 2011, with the iPad 2 announcement fast approaching. So Google decided to rush it. They decided that shipping something was more important than the OS being perfect.
Of course, most of the tablet-specific stuff that Honeycomb brings are very good ideas indeed, this isn’t to say they aren’t, just that the execution (and performance, and stability) could have been better.
We got the first Honeycomb announcement at CES with a hands-off demo that clearly showed that the OS wasn’t ready, even in early 2011. Finally, many weeks later, Honeycomb has started shipping on the Motorola Xoom recently. But Andy Rubin, Google’s head of Android, now says this:
“To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs. 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. We have no idea if it will even work on phones.”
Translation: they wanted to make Honeycomb available for phones too, but at some point (and my guess would be this happened pretty early on) they realized it would be impossible to do that without seriously delaying the release – and, as a consequence, hardware dependent on it, such as all these new Android Honeycomb-powered tablets we keep hearing about day after day.
As a result, Honeycomb today is about as polished as Android 1.0 once was (remember that?). Okay, so maybe that’s a bit unfair, but the truth is that there are many bugs to be ironed out there. And what would open-sourcing Honeycomb at this point mean?
It would mean that dozens of small, very small, or maybe even mid-sized phone makers (based mostly in China and India, with perhaps a few surprises among the others) would rush to get it onto phones, even if it wasn’t designed for that, or optimized for that. And what would then happen? People would buy such devices because, hey, after all 3.0 has to be better than 2.3, right?, and they’d start hating Android. Because the experience would probably be terrible.
So what is Google doing? My guess would be that it’s busy working on re-merging the two distinct (for now) Android branches. Android Ice Cream will probably be that, and it may be first shown during Google’s yearly I/O conference that will take place in May. When exactly Ice Cream will hit the streets is another story, it may be weeks after that or months, it all depends on how development goes.
But, if Google is able to successfully re-merge Android into one branch with Ice Cream, and it will be able to hold off on open-sourcing Honeycomb until that (which isn’t entirely unlikely), they probably either never will open-source Honeycomb or do it so late that no one will care anymore – since the world will be focused on the shiny new release (Ice Cream). I think that this is the plan, and however outrageous it may seem at first to open source purists, Google may have a point here. Android has grown incredibly in 2010, and keeps on growing, and the brand is getting more and more well-known worldwide. Doing something to foolishly compromise the trust people place in that brand wouldn’t make much sense.
And Android will remain an open source project, Andy Rubin has confirmed that much. It’s just that you won’t be able to put Honeycomb on phones, that’s all.
Let’s not forget that Google has received a lot of criticism from open source enthusiasts even for the way it normally releases new Android versions, specifically for the fact that development is all done in-house, and the open-sourcing only occurs after a new version has been finished (which is different than how most open source projects do it, but not technically breaking the open source license that Google chooses to use). So this, while clearly unheard of, wouldn’t actually be such a great departure from the way Google usually does things with regard to Android open-sourcing.