Small Taiwanese firms finally get some new Android code

Google had delayed the release of Android 3.0 earlier this year, which drew criticism

Some of Taiwan's smaller manufacturers said they were relieved to see Google release the source code for its Android 4.0 operating system, after being cut out of the picture with its previous Honeycomb version.

"We are glad to see Google backing up their open source policy by releasing Android 4.0," said David Chen, CEO of computer maker Shuttle. "It is open source that contributes to the success of Android. On the other hand, a closed version such as Honeycomb didn't help the market at all."

Google had pledged to release the source code for Honeycomb, also known as Android 3.0, but then delayed its release indefinitely. It provided Honeycomb only to bigger manufacturers, such as Acer and Motorola, while smaller companies had to stick with earlier versions of the software.

That limited their ability to build competitive tablets, because Honeycomb was the first version of Android designed expressly for those devices. Critics also complained that Google had gone back on its word, and worse, that it may have violated the terms of Android's open-source license.

This past week, Google released the source code for Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich. "This means that everything from phones to cars to sky goggles can run Android," Google said of the release.

It has also, finally, released the Honeycomb source code, in a manner of speaking. The release note to developers says Ice Cream Sandwich includes the "full history" of the Android source code, meaning Honeycomb is somewhere within it.

Google has done a better job so far of sharing the Android 4.0 code, said an official at a Taiwanese hardware vendor that builds tablets, who didn't want his company identified because it partners with Google. Previously, small vendors had complained that some companies were getting the Android source code and some were not, he said.

"The lack of partnership and the timing of the release were a problem. Google wasn't wholeheartedly supporting the release," the official said. "But this time, with Android 4.0, the release has been carried out better."

Computer maker Micro-Star International (MSI) said it had initially wanted to launch an Android 3.0 product earlier in the year, but was forced to wait, according to Sam Chern, a company marketing director.

"We tried to launch an Android 3.0 product, but unfortunately the OS was not available to MSI at that time. It is a bit of pity. We could not have the production in the market," he said. MSI, however, plans to launch products with Android 4.0 in the future. "Android 4.0 will be a good product and we will try using it," he added.

Google's ultimate goal was always to get Android 4.0 out of the door, a version designed for both smartphones and tablets, said Daryl Chiam, an analyst with research firm Canalys.

Because Honeycomb was developed mainly for tablets, Google was concerned that if it released the source code, developers would still want to use it on smartphones. This could have led to sub-par handsets, which would have weakened the Android brand, as well as the business of its hardware partners, according to Chiam.

"That's one of the main reasons why they delayed it," Chiam said. "It was not to favor one manufacturer over and another."

While Google was excited to offer Honeycomb's new features to Android tablets, it had more work to do before it could deliver them to other device types including phones, the company said when asked to comment for this story.

Still, not all manufacturers are embracing Android 4.0. Contract manufacturer First International Computer showed a tablet running Android 2.2 at the Computex trade show last year. But the company is now turning its limited engineering resources to Windows 8, Microsoft's first OS designed for tablets.

"We are looking forward to Windows 8. We are not moving forward on Ice Cream Sandwich," said FIC marketing director Andy Lo.

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Tags open sourcehardware systemsAndroidtabletssoftwareMicro-Star InternationalmobileshuttleAndroid tabletsconsumer electronicsGooglesmartphonesMobile OSes

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service
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