Take “beta,” for example. Most of us take it to mean buggy, pre-release software that’s “mostly working, but still under test.” But Google uses the word to refer to a product that’s ready for general use but is subject to “regular updates and constant feature refinement.”
Andy Rubin, Google’s Senior Director of Mobile Platforms who oversees Android, gave a similar semantic shuffling to the word “open” in response to a slam by Steve Jobs. The Apple CEO stirred up a hornet’s nest of angry Android developers this week when he suggested, in a lengthy diatribe during an Apple press event, that Google’s mobile operating system was not really “open.”
Rubin responded by sending his first ever tweet, posting the code necessary to download the Android source and compile it on your PC and calling it “the definition of open.”
But whether Android actually qualifies as “open” in the purest sense is up for debate, since downloading and compiling code alone does not make a piece of software open. Bruce Perens, who coined the term “open source” and has been working on its behalf ever since, is suspect of Rubin’s definition.
“The fact that you can check something out and compile it doesn’t mean you have the right to use it,” Perens tells Wired.
In the software world, “open” can be defined around three core traits: a license that insures the code can be modified, reused and distributed; a community development approach; and, most importantly, assurance the user has total freedom over the device and software.
The Android OS is, in strictly legal terms, open source. Android is released under the Apache 2.0 software license, which allows anyone to use, modify and redistribute the code. But while it might meet the letter of the law, Android falls short on the other two points.
It’s the lack of community-based development that Android’s critics say makes it no more “open” than Apple’s locked-down, decidedly not-open iOS model. As Perens says, “most open source projects [include] instant access to changes as they are made … and an open door for anyone to participate.”
Unlike major open source projects like Firefox or the Linux kernel, you can’t see what’s happening behind the scenes with Android, nor can small developers contribute to the project in any meaningful way. Google typically releases major updates to Android at press conferences, not unlike those Apple uses to show off new iPhone features.
Once the code is released, Android developers can download it and do what they want with it, but they have no way of seeing what’s happening behind the scenes every day. If you want to know how Firefox changed last night – however esoteric those changes may be – you can study the changes on the Mozilla site. The same is true of the Linux kernel, Open Office and nearly every other open source project with a website.
It’s not true of Android. While Android may have the legal licensing to qualify as open source, it utterly fails on the equally important issues of transparency and community.
Android basically gives you two options: Accept what Google gives you, or fork the entire codebase. Other than the ability to roll your own version of Android, it’s really no different than iOS, which works on a similar “take what Apple gives you” model.
Facebook’s Joe Hewitt, the Firefox co-creator who is now rumored to be working on a Facebook-branded mobile OS based on Android, chimed in over Twitter. Hewitt says the lack of transparency in the Android development process makes it “no different than iOS to me,” adding, “open source means sharing control with the community, not show and tell.”
The next day, Hewitt followed up with a blog post clarifying his remarks.
“It kills me to hear the term ‘open’ watered down so much. It bothers me that so many people’s first exposure to the idea of open source is an occasional code drop, and not a vibrant community of collaborators like I discovered ten years ago with Mozilla.”
He also recommends people look at Google’s Chrome OS project, which is being run with a level of transparency and community involvement largely absent from Android, and which is a better representation, he says, of Google’s values.
Unfortunately, even if Google were to develop Android in the open, as the Mozilla foundation does with Firefox, it probably wouldn’t help Android be any more open.
While Google’s approach may be a disingenuous use of the word open – as Hewitt says, Google is doing “bare minimum to meet the definition of open” – there is another problem: the phone carriers.
“The problem is the wireless carriers first and Google second,” says Perens, “because Google enables the carriers to close the Android platform from the user’s perspective.” In other words, while you might be able to copy and paste the code from Rubins’ tweet and take a look at Android yourself, what arrives with actual phone is every bit as tightly controlled as iOS.
Just as there are jailbreaking hacks for the iPhone, there are root hacks for Android that attempt to give the end user some control back. That Android is less controlled by its Google parent in other ways – the Android Market, for instance, is not tightly regulated like Apple’s App Store counterpart – is a secondary benefit. Neither device is open in the sense that the end user can modify it as they see fit – customize it perhaps, but adding a new theme and downloading whatever apps you like are not the goals of open software.
The real goal of open software, as Perens and others have help define it over the years, is to ensure that you can do whatever you want with it. As anyone with an iPhone or and Android phone can tell you, that’s not the current state of affairs on either device. Nearly every smartphone on the market is tightly locked to its carrier’s specifications. There are a few exceptions, like the Nokia N900, which runs Maemo Linux.
The carriers argue that open phones would threaten the network. Steve Jobs argues that an open phone would threaten the user experience.
AT&T used to argue both of the same things during most of the 20th century, when it still maintained total control (what Jobs likes to call an “integrated” system) over land lines – you rented phones from AT&T or you didn’t have one. Decades after several massive anti-trust lawsuits and the breakup of Ma Bell, we’ve ended up back in a similar jam.
Even if there were a truly open source OS for your phone, it’s unlikely it would ever truly be open by the time it arrived in your hand.