Are you really open when you're open only when it suits you? The whole open source thing is supposed to be always open all the time. Trust in the magic of open source -- it will work out in the end.
-John Gruber, The Talk Show, March 30, 2011
“Open” is one of those terms that means a lot of different things to different people. Most should be able to agree, though, that open-vs.-closed is a continuum — shades of gray, not just black and white. A light enough shade of gray is “open”, dark enough is “closed”. The arguments are over where those thresholds lie.
-John Gruber, DaringFireball, May 14, 2010
It is getting tiresome to hear Apple fans, having long bashed Google's Android because "open" was bad, now bash Google for being somewhat less "open." I think John Gruber's piling on this week went over the top, leaving the realm of his usually sharp analysis and entering propaganda territory.
Most of the recent criticism, as Willy Wonka might say, is 2% accurate, 12% link bait, 98% hot air and 3% butterscotch ripple.
Let's start with the recent story that kicked off this wave of bitterness: Google will delay the release of the underlying source code of Android version 3.0 "Honeycomb" for a couple of months to make it more suitable for use on phones as well as tablets. Google said it was afraid the Android brand would be sullied by companies retrofitting the current tablet-focused Honeycomb code onto phones and providing a poor user experience.
To say that this delay means Android is no longer "open" makes about as much sense as saying that Apple's iOS is not "closed" because Apple regularly releases the source code of a few components. And Apple makes just as big a deal about the advantages of iOS being closed as Google does about the openness of Android.
As Gruber accurately said last year, you need to take a holistic view to determine what should be called "open" and what should be deemed "closed." Both Apple and Google are obviously trying to reap all the advantages they can while minimizing the disadvantages of each path.
Any fair observer would have to conclude that Android is still "open." Every version of Android's full source code except for the most recent is available to anyone who wants to tinker with it for free. Hardware makers can load any version of Android before Honeycomb on any device with any of their own additions for free. And the entire software developer kit for the latest version, Honeycomb, with all the OS's application programming interfaces, or APIs, has been made public for free. Developers can write all the programs they want with no approval needed from Google and no licensing fees owed.
Beyond simply the openness of the operating system software itself, Android also remains largely an "open" platform. Users can modify almost any aspect of their phones in ways that iPhone users cannot. Users can mount their phones as drives on one or more computers to upload or download whatever songs, movies or data they'd like without the kinds of lock-down imposed by Apple and iTunes. Most users and developers can also avoid Google's own application market and Google's share of fees if they so desire. And many users can even load wholly independent versions of Android onto their phones without needing to "jailbreak" the devices.
What has never been allowed -- and what Google apparently is getting tougher about -- is code tinkering by companies that have signed special licensing agreements so they can include Google's proprietary programs like Gmail and Maps or get access to Android code before it is released publicly. These contracts have always been about giving incentives to device makers to include Google products in return for giving up some control. The point of the tougher limits is to give Google more control to reduce fragmentation, reduce crapware and improve the user experience.
And, yes, mobile carriers suck and lock down some or all the open features I've described above (for example, AT&T users can't load apps outside of the Google market). But on the whole, on Gruber's continuum, Google continues to pursue an "open" Android strategy versus Apple's "closed" iOS world.
Both approaches have their merits and their failings. How about we focus on that instead of which system is open or closed?
UPDATE: Gruber just linked to the breathless, overhyped first paragraph of the Businessweek story above and dug himself in deeper: "Andy Rubin, Vic Gundotra, all of them: shameless, lying hypocrites."
Gruber's just piling on the stupidity. The license agreements for Google's own proprietary software have always limited device makers' freedom. And despite the broad strokes in the lead of the article, the actual facts reported are far more limited. Google gets to "review" tweaks to Android made by Facebook for a Facebook phone. Google has "tried to hold up the release" of Verizon phones that used Bing as a search engine.
The biggest joke is that the Businessweek article ends with a quote from Nokia CEO and former Microsoftie Stephen Elop saying that Android is no longer open and that's why he chose the more open Windows Phone 7. YIKES! Not good company, Mr. Gruber.