Google tries to become Apple

Don't be evil?

Businessweek is reporting that Google is shifting away from its open-source, open-handed approach to Android development and toward one that requires hardware makers and software developers to get its approval before they get to play with Android.

Until recently Google let phone manufacturers and carriers make changes to Android to add features, new services or tweak it to run more effectively on their hardware – that didn’t have to supervised or approved by Google.

Now Google is enforcing the “non-fragmentation clauses” in contracts covering Android -- insisting that any changes meet its approval or get thrown out.

"There have been enough run-ins to trigger complaints with the Justice Dept., according to a person familiar with the matter.,” Businessweek reports.

Google’s decision to hold back Honeycomb, the next major version of the Android OS, rather than give it to developers to work with, is part of the drive for control, according to an earlier BW story.

Of course, Google could be keeping Honeycomb to itself to bring its tablet-specific functions closer to parity with the iPad2 so it can compete in the tablet market that is supposed to be its next great growth area.

Android has a long way to go to catch up with iPad, according to Apple developer, blogger and fanboi Justin Williams.

At the introduction of the iPad2 March 2, Apple CEO Steve Jobs estimated there are fewer than 100 Android apps designed for tablets, compared to 65,000 in the iOS App Store that “take full advantage of the iPad” and a total of 350,000 iOS apps.

Williams checked. Of the 50 apps listed as having been slated for tablets, only 20 had any functions that took advantage of any feature of a tablet, rather than a phone, except being viewed on a larger screen.

That would be enough to make anyone nervous.

Nervous enough to clamp down on a famously open development environment and “don’t-be-evil” corporate mantra?

Maybe. There has always been some justification for Apple’s obsession with controlling all the hardware and software that runs in, on or near any of its products.

That level of control honestly does ensure better integration and more consistent experience for users.

The price of too little control is poor interoperability, sloppy products and headaches for end users.

The price of too much is severe limits on the technology, graphic sensibilities and use-cases for which your products are designed.

It also makes you look prudish, silly or even hypocritical when you spend so much energy censoring the type of apps, images and even books that can appear on your devices, but let one slip through that promises to cure gays of their homosexuality (and then not explain how it happened).

It’s a long devolution from being Google to being Apple. I don’t know if Google is really up to it.

It already has all the power Apple ever wished for, but not in the walled garden Apple built. Google’s is built on casualness – the ability to find information when you want it, apps when you need them and never have to rely on any one specific thing Google supplies except search.

In an information economy, that’s enough, but it’s a power base built on the open availability of information, not control over it.

Google is Wikipedia, not the Oxford English Dictionary, at least so far.

With all its potential power, if it becomes Apple, the impact on netizens will be a lot broader than what happens to a few bits of Android code.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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