Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt: Rubin’s Android Fudge

Apr 7, 2011
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"I think I'm having a Gene Amdahl moment" Andy Rubin opened his Android openness piece with, referring to the ex-IBM engineer's notorious "fear, uncertainty and doubt" quote that has matured into a catch-all term shorthand for using disinformation to build doubt around your competitors. To be fair there's plenty of confusion to go around: claims attributed to OHA partners that Google was prioritizing only those who would kow-tow to its UI demands, attempting to block devices that switched out its own search for that of Microsoft's Bing, and limiting code access to a cabal of favorites.

Serious allegations when you've built your platform on the promise of open access and flexibility. As we pointed out last week, there are several good reasons why Google would benefit from clamping down - at least a little - in the name of anti-fragmentation, but Rubin is keen to validate Android's free-spirited ethos. Nonetheless, there are holes where we'd like to see facts.

According to Rubin, the openness issue boils down into two main strands. First there's those who want "to market a device as Android-compatible or include Google applications on the device" - Google has a compatibility requirement checklist that it insists must be satisfied in that case - and second there's "everything else", the manufacturers who are "free to modify Android to customize any range of features … to support the unique and differentiating functionality of their products."

As Rubin sells it, everybody gets Android and it's up to them to decide down which of the two roads to take it. Problem is, that's only one small part of the controversy. The companies - and we're talking significant names here, like LG, Samsung and Toshiba - weren't saying they couldn't get hold of the Android source code, they were complaining that they couldn't necessarily get it quickly or, more accurately, as quick as everybody else. Google, the argument went, was playing favorites, in effect coercing compliance by deciding which of their partners would get access earliest based on their willingness to toe the company line. Everyone is equal, sure, but some are more equal than others, and exactly how equal is supposedly based on what, exactly, you plan on doing to the code.

Rubin also spins the usual hyperbole about how, despite differences, everybody plays together for the greater good. In fact, he seems to have borrowed Steve Jobs' phrasebook, claiming that "Miraculously, we are seeing the platform take on new use cases, features and form factors as it’s being introduced in new categories and regions while still remaining consistent and compatible for third party applications." It's a compelling idea: more and more devices running a consistent underlying platform, ever expanding the playground for developers to ply their wares.

Thing is, those very developers recently described fragmentation in the Android ecosystem as a "huge" - or at the very least "meaningful" - problem. In a survey by analyst William Powers, around 57-percent of developers questioned said they believed it was an issue, a number that has in fact grown, not shrunk, in the past three months. True, that's based on a sample of 250, but it's not the direction Google might have hoped things would evolve in, and it's not the promise of things "remaining consistent and compatible for third party applications" that Rubin insists holds true.

Fear of Google isn't likely to go away any time soon. Like Apple and iOS, they're the driving force behind Android and - for all they say OEMs are able to go away and modify to their hearts' content - only HTC has really done that with any great success. Everyone else relies on access to the Android mother-teat, and with the smartphone segment so hotly contested it's no surprise that there's uncertainty whether Google has enough nipples to go around.

As for doubt, well, we're still not convinced that we're hearing the whole story. Android has demonstrated that openness and equal-access aren't the same thing, and for all Rubin may have hoped that his "attempt to set the record straight" might lay things to rest, this controversy looks set to continue for some time to come.


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