Is Criticism Of Android’s Openness Justified?

According to Facebook developer Joe Hewitt, Android is being manipulated by operators. A Facebook engineer complaining about openness? Hmm… says Clint Boulton

File this under: Kettle, meet Pot.

Renowned Mozilla Firefox browser/Facebook for iPhone developer (turned Facebook for Android developer?) Joe Hewitt joined Apple CEO Steve Jobs in sounding off on Google’s Android operating system and its pretension for being open.

Hewitt on his personal blog questioned recurring claims by Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Android creator Andy Rubin of Android’s openness by correctly pointing out that carriers are manipulating Android.

By way of example, US operator Verizon Wireless, which has created its own app store to rival Android Market, puts a lot of bloatware on its Droid lineup. Other operators do it too, like Vodafone 360 in the UK.

Android too open?

While Hewitt, who quit working on Facebook’s iPhone app because of Apple’s stringent iOS developer terms, credits Android for being the most open of all major mobile operating systems, he noted:

“It’s clear to me that the only reason Android has enjoyed so much success is that Google has given the carriers pretty much everything they could ask for, and the carriers have responded with the ton of marketing dollars and subsidies that Google needed in order for Android to have any shot to compete with the iPhone. While I can criticise Google for compromising Android in an effort to please the carriers, I have to admit that if they hadn’t done this, Android would very likely be irrelevant today.”

Hewitt freely acknowledged that he came from Mozilla, which is as open as open source can get, noting that if “Firefox had required subsidies and advertising to reach 20 percent market share, Mozilla may have had to make compromises too.”

Small point: Mozilla Firefox share growth has stalled, thanks to Google Chrome. Maybe it’s time Mozilla compromises before Chrome and IE 9 market Mozilla out of the market. Sad, but possible.

Hewitt concluded:

“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. I am hoping that at some point it becomes practical for Google to move Android towards the Firefox model of open source, because I am sure that they want to.”

Just a smokescreen

I would argue in support of the point Jobs made from 18 October, when he said on Apple’s earnings call that Google’s claims of Android’s openness are a smokescreen.

Google could put its big foot down, but it’s no match for mighty carriers like Verizon Wireless. What Google calls “open” Jobs calls fragmented. What Google calls “open” Hewitt calls compromised by carrier greed.

Remember, Google is open not to be the flame-carrying torch for open source, but to make money from ads served on Android phones. Even if it means letting carriers and hardware makers use Android however they choose. Obviously, because that is what has happened.

At most, we may accuse Google of overplaying the open versus closed card with respect to Android versus Apple iOS. Jobs and Hewitt are absolutely right about that.

Kettle, meet Pot

I must point out what others haven’t though.

I realise Hewitt’s comments were made on his personal blog, but it still chafes me a bit.

Hewitt’s openness cred rang true when he was at Mozilla, but he’s at Facebook, where not long ago you couldn’t pry data from CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s fingers. Remember how Google’s calls for Facebook to join OpenSocial fell on deaf ears?

Facebook was so closed it had to hire respected open-source guys like David Recordon to teach its programmers how to be open, or at least to act open.

Sure, Facebook has bargained with Bing, which is like bargaining with an old devil, but still … a Facebook programmer is calling out Google for ratcheting up the open rhetoric for Android. Wow.

Perhaps its time to turn one’s gaze inward, as surely Kettle has met Pot here.