Last week, Google said it would not release the source for its Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" tablet to developers and would limit the OS to select hardware makers, at least initially. Now there are rumors reported by Bloomberg Businessweek that Google is requiring Android device makers to get UI changes approved by Google.
As my colleague Savio Rodrigues has written, limiting the Honeycomb code is not going to hurt the Android market. I believe reining in the custom UIs imposed on Android is a good thing. Let's be honest: They exist only so companies like Motorola, HTC, and Samsung can pretend to have any technology involvement in the Android products they sell and claim they have some differentiating feature that should make customers want their model of an Android smartphone versus the umpteenth otherwise-identical Android smartphones out there.
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The reality of Android is that it is the new Windows: an operating system used by multiple hardware vendors to create essentially identical products, save for the company name printed on it. That of course is what the device makers fear -- both those like Acer that already live in the race-to-the-bottom PC market and those like Motorola and HTC that don't want to.
But these cosmetic UI differences cause confusion among users, sending the message that Android is a collection of devices, not a platform like Apple's iOS. As Android's image becomes fragmented, so does the excitement that powers adoption. Anyone who's followed the cell phone industry has seen how that plays out: There are 1 billion Java-based cell phones out there, but no one knows it, and no one cares, as each works so differently that the Java underpinnings offer no value to anyone but Oracle, which licenses the technology.
Google initially seemed to want to play the same game as Oracle (and before it Sun), providing an under-the-hood platform for manufacturers to use as they saw fit. But a couple curious things happened:
Vendors such as Best Buy started selling the Android brand, to help create a sense of a unified alternative to BlackBerry and iOS, as well as to help prevent customers from feeling overwhelmed by all the "different" phones available. Too much choice confuses people, and salespeople know that.
Several mobile device makers shipped terrible tablets based on the Android 2.2 smartphone OS -- despite Google's warnings not to -- because they were impatient with Google's slow progress in releasing Honeycomb. These tablets, such as the Galaxy Tab, were terrible products and clear hack jobs that only demonstrated the iPad's superiority. I believe they also finally got the kids at Google to understand that most device makers have no respect for the Android OS and will create the same banal products for it as they do for Windows. The kids at Google have a mission, and enabling white-box smartphones isn't it.