Google’s Wrongheaded Approach to Android

Google took a step backward with Honeycomb last week. Instead of locking the source they should start treating Android as a real open source project and start enforcing the Android trademark.

If you want access to Google’s Honeycomb goodness, you’re going to have to wait a bit longer. The reason? It wants to prevent use of Honeycomb on phones and (presumably) unauthorized tablets. What’s the matter, Google, never heard of a trademark?

A couple of years ago, I came across a spectacularly wrong-headed attack on use of trademarks on open source projects. As I replied at the time, trademarks are actually the friend of open source projects and companies that spend large bucks on open source.

There’s this company, maybe you’ve heard of ‘em — by the name Red Hat. They have worked very hard to protect the Red Hat name and ensure that if you see something being sold under the name “Red Hat” (obviously, as relates to computing and not actual red hats) it’s coming from them. You might run something that’s substantially the same as Red Hat Enterprise Linux, but you can be damn sure that the provider — whether it’s a open source project like CentOS, or a parasite like Oracle — is not slapping the Red Hat name on it to confuse the market.

It’s quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. Red Hat has made clear that it has lawyers, and isn’t afraid to use them to protect its trademark. So what happens? The commercial competitors came up with their own brand name, and the community projects came up with names that clearly do not hearken to the initial project.

Guess what? Red Hat’s vigorous enforcement of its trademark has done nothing to harm the larger community — it has in fact gained benefit from Red Hat’s trademark. Red Hat spends its money on FOSS development and knows that it can still get value for that because it controls the trademark — but anybody, whether it’s not-for-profit, or it’s an enormous bloated competitor can take the code and work with it. They just can’t call it Red Hat. And that’s good.

The same thing protects Mozilla Firefox, LibreOffice/OpenOffice.org, Debian, etc. Trademark is a community friendly way to enforce rights of the project or vendor and still let the community get on with the coding up.

That’s Nice, but Android?

So where’s Google come into this? The nice folks in Mountain View have decided they’re going to hold on to Honeycomb source indefinitely because “Android 3.0, Honeycomb, was designed from the ground up for devices with larger screen sizes and improves on Android favorites such as widgets, multi-tasking, browsing, notifications and customization. While we’re excited to offer these new features to Android tablets, we have more work to do before we can deliver them to other device types including phones.”

Loosely translated: We don’t want anybody to get their hands on Android 3.0 unless we approve and we don’t want to see a bunch of crappy phones and tablets with Android 3.0 flooding the market. At least that’s what we’re supposed to take away from this — Google is protecting the Android experience by holding back the source code. Otherwise some unscrupulous or over-eager companies might ship Android 3.0 with a sub-par experience.

Now, I know that Google isn’t as litigious as Apple or Oracle. And I’m sure their legal department is pretty busy these days fending off bogus patent suits. But really Google? Here’s a thought — start operating Android as a real open source project and start enforcing the Android trademark.

I’ve slapped MeeGo around for the overzealous approach to the MeeGo trademark — but they have their hearts in the right place on this issue. Do your development in the open and use the trademark to make sure that the stuff that ships is up to snuff. If someone wants to ship your distribution but it’s not up to snuff, then let them have the code under the terms of the license but hold the name back. They don’t tarnish the project or get any of its halo to sell more devices.

Just because the code is open doesn’t mean that Google and its consortium have any obligation to allow any unauthorized company to use the Android name. If some no-name OEM wants to slap a Honeycomb distribution on a crappy tablet, then let ‘em. Just don’t let the company call it Android.

What Google Should Do

In fact, I do wish Google would be more enthusiastic about this already. There’s a lot of crappy tablets on the market that wear the Android name. The quality of the Android builds and the hardware it ships on are questionable. Let’s do something about that instead of being a poor community player.

Google could set forth very clear guidelines for Android trademark usage that not only include approval but also hardware requirements and code requirements. Maybe it has these already, but it’s just not flexing its muscle?

I’d love to see Google say “you can only use Honeycomb/Android 3.0 by name with a dual-core CPU at 1.0GHz or higher and 512MB of RAM,” (or whatever the appropriate specs should be). Then go after the manufacturers that want to produce crapware tablets.

Make with the Code Already

But don’t punish the rest of the community because you haven’t figured out trademark. If there’s another issue, then don’t blow smoke — just admit Android isn’t open, already.

I understand that Google, like the rest of the mobile market, is under enormous pressure to ship and compete. But I just don’t buy that it’s impossible to mesh that effectively with being a good community player.

Some of my friends in the larger Linux community wonder why I’m not a rabid Android fan — this is one of the primary reasons. Sure, Google has sort of meandered its way to releasing Android code when it gets around to it. But it’s really a fundamentally closed community. I get enthused about Linux not just because the code is open, but because I can be part of the larger community and have an impact. I don’t feel the same way about Android. Yeah, it’s nice that it’s (eventually) released under an open source license — but it’s Google’s ballgame.

Google and its partners produce Android releases, then eventually get around to doing a code drop while they’re already well on the way to the next Android release. The actual input from the larger community is minimal — which is a shame because Android is a very important computing platform for many people. We just don’t think about it the same way.

The problem that Google is citing is totally surmountable in a community friendly way. That Google chooses not to release code rather than exercising its trademark is unfortunate, and undermines the platform. I certainly don’t feel that I can recommend Android based on its “openness” when Google can, at a whim, delay releasing the code for Honeycomb or any other release indefinitely. Sure, Android is more open than iOS — but that’s such a low threshold for success as to be laughable.

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