The vendor-neutral mobile Linux space is gradually being displaced by a walled garden in which Google is the ultimate arbiter and has complete control. In that sense, Android is unambiguously detrimental to the goal of encouraging software freedom on mobile devices.
After the refusal of Google to share the Honeycomb source code, Ryan Paul offers this scathing conclusion in Ars Technica:
(more discussion here)
“When Android was first announced, Google’s evangelists touted it as an open ecosystem that would enable innovation—a hardware and software reaffirmation of the Carterfone decision. They spoke of a future where users would be free from restrictions and be able to install whatever software they want.
Sadly, those promises were never fulfilled and the dream of an open mobile ecosystem around Android never materialized. In reality, Android has become an insular platform developed almost entirely behind closed doors in an environment that is hostile to external contributors and is mired in a culture of secrecy that serves a small handful of prominent commercial hardware vendors and mobile carriers.
The vast majority of Android smartphones are encumbered by lockdown mechanisms that block installation of third-party firmware. Some mobile carriers even block installation of external software entirely, in stark contradiction of Google’s early promises. The availability of Android source code after each release was really the last remnant of openness in Android—and now it’s gone. The whimsical notion that Android is an open platform is a tattered fabrication that has been stretched beyond the average open source software enthusiast’s capacity to suspend disbelief.
Sadly, there is little about this move that is surprising. Google has long exhibited a pattern of behavior in its Android dealings that reflects a disregard for openness and the third-party development community. It started even before the first Android release, when Google silently stopped making SDK updates available to the public for months and used nondisclosure agreements to gag the privileged few who were given access.
Google further demonstrated its apathy towards the third-party Android developer community when the company’s legal department sent cease and desist notices to a prominent modder in an effort to block the inclusion of Google’s proprietary Android software in custom firmware images. In both cases, the company’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with independent developers and complete lack of appropriate communication were just as troubling as the implications for Android’s openness.
After scrutinizing the nature of Google’s interaction with the open source software community on matters relating to Android over the past few years, the fact that they are declining to release source code now doesn’t seem like a change in direction. It’s the natural evolution of a culture where openness is a marketing gimmick and not a core principle.
What makes it all the more troubling is the extent to which Android deviates from the conventional upstream Linux stack. The insular nature of the Android userspace makes interoperability between Android and conventional mobile and desktop Linux platforms difficult and impractical. Android’s Linux kernel even diverged from the official upstream Linux kernel due to different approaches to power management. The technical differences were only recently resolved.
Because Android operates its own Google-controlled fiefdom outside of the upstream stack, its growing popularity doesn’t materially benefit upstream Linux. As more hardware vendors flock to Android, the growing ubiquity of Google’s platform necessarily marginalizes the healthier and more inclusive environment that exists upstream.
The vendor-neutral mobile Linux space is gradually being displaced by a walled garden in which Google is the ultimate arbiter and has complete control. In that sense, Android is unambiguously detrimental to the goal of encouraging software freedom on mobile devices.”