Google strives to balance commercial, community with Android

While Google says Android is an open development process, partners say the search giant is leading the charge

Onlookers say that Google is in charge of Android development, despite pitching the software as a community project. But experts say that could be the only way Google can ensure that the software is actually released.

The Android development process may reflect a reality in the open-source environment, as some groups forego the community in an effort to speed commercialization.

When Google first introduced Android, it called it a joint project by the Open Handset Alliance, a group of companies supporting the OS. “Together we have developed Android,” the OHA site reads.

But in reality, the software is developed in-house at Google, partners say.

“Android is open-source innovation driven by Google,” said Bill Maggs, head of developer and partner content and services at Sony Ericsson. “Google is largely at this point definitely driving the framework.”

Motorola also acknowledged that Android is not developed in the open.

“We would love a world where the development itself is closer to open,” said Christy Wyatt, vice president of software applications and ecosystems at Motorola, speaking at a press event at the recent CTIA conference.

“It’s absolutely Google-controlled and managed,” agreed Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis.

Eric Chu, group manager of Android mobile platform at Google, said that Android has always been and continues to be an open-source project, and that it's not accurate to characterize it as an initiative completely controlled by Google.

However, he acknowledged that Google faces a challenge of working with partners that want to contribute to Android while also meeting other partners’ demands for commercial products.

It’s a constant struggle to balance how often Google releases different early access versions of the software while working on finishing versions that can ship commercially, he said.

“We think it’s very important for Android to have a strong commercial focus. There are a lot of open-source projects out there, but what the world cares about is open-source projects that will result in commercial products,” Chu said. “That’s where we’re putting a lot of our energy.”

It’s not clear if Google intended to control development from the start or if it changed its plan when faced with the realities of developing in open source.

“You don’t get work done if it’s totally open,” Greengart said. As an example, he points to LiMo, a mobile Linux project. “LiMo is 100 percent multisource. So much so that the first-generation devices are incompatible,” he said.

“That’s where controlling the development process and having a developer with clout both in terms of money and brand to say, ‘This is the way we’re doing it, either live with it or go away,’ is actually valuable,” he said. “To an extent, it ensures there’s something usable.”

Another analyst said Google’s Android experience reflects a trend. “It is representative of an evolution, or maturation of the open-source model,” said Brian Prentice, an analyst with Gartner. Projects like Linux were created through broad and active community participation, he said.

“But what we're starting to see is that a single dominant committer is just as viable a model for open source.”

Prentice also pointed out that while Google may control development of Android, there is a strong base of non-Google contributions because the software is built on Linux, which is developed by the community.

In addition, typically in open-source projects there is a small group of core developers that maintain the distribution, surrounded by a group of developers that build modules that are not part of the base distribution.

Android is essentially following that same model, with Google serving as the core developer and handset makers like Motorola and HTC serving as the edge developers, building their own extensions, Prentice said.

If Google has decided to drive Android development internally, that doesn’t explain why it seems resistant to sharing its development plans. After widespread criticism following the initial release of Android over the mystery of what might come next, Google posted a vague road map online.

However, it’s hardly been updated since. The most recent item on the page is for "beyond Q1 2009" and only includes support for additional types of displays.

Chu said they’re too busy to update the page. “We have a lot of demand for additional features for Android, so we decided rather than spending a lot of time updating the road map and deliver something nine months from now, we’ve just been delivering at a very rapid pace,” he said.

That could be. Or, Google might not want to tip off competitors, Greengart said.

Google could also be “playing politics,” meaning it may have decided that if it makes no promises then it won’t be criticized for failing to deliver, he said.

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