Google Demonstrates Limits of "Open Source" for Android

Paul Lilly

Earlier this month, we posted a step-by-step guide showing Android G1 owners how to root their phones and install a third party ROM. There are several upshots to doing so, including the ability to overcome the G1's meager amount of memory by installing apps directly to a SD card. Wtih the Android Market now sitting at roughly 10,000 apps strong and third party ROM developers churning out mature firmware, we felt the time was right.

Unfortunately, Google's timing couldn't be any worse. The search giant last week issued a cease and desist order to ROM developer Cyanogen, maker of CyanogenMod, arguably the most popular Android ROM out there.The problem, says Google , isn't that Cyanogen is hacking away at the open-source OS, but that he's also including (and distributing) a handful of closed-source apps, including Market, Gmail, YouTube, and Google Maps.

Here's what Google had to say on its Android Developers blog :

"To encourage broad adoption, we arranged for Android to be open-source. Google also created and operates Android Market as a service for developers to distribute their apps to Android users. In other words, we created Android because the industry needed an injection of openness. Today, we're thrilled to see all the enthusiasm that developers, users, and others in the mobile industry have shown toward Android.

With a high-quality open platform in hand, we then returned to our goal of making our services available on users' phones. That's why we developed Android apps for many of our services like YouTube, Gmail, Google Voice, and so on. These apps are Google's way of benefiting from Android in the same way that any other developer can, but the apps are not part of the Android platform itself. We make some of these apps available to users of any Android-powered device via Android Market, and others are pre-installed on some phones through business deals."

The last line says it all. No matter how pissed off the Android developers are - and they're pretty pissed -- and no matter how much open-source advocates want to cry foul, the truth is, Google is within its legal rights, and even has a complelling reason for enforcing them. There's no doubt handset makers are paying Google a premium to pre-load their devices with proprietary apps, so ti doesn't matter that all of them can be obtained for free. Redistributing the closed-source apps on hacked ROMs that can run on a number of handsets could potentially cut into Google's business revenue.

At the same time, Google has also dropped a bomb on Android developers, who all must now figure out how to work around Google's restrictions, and whether it's even worth their time to do so. Should Cyanogen ultimately decide to call it quits, the Android community would lose its most active developer, who claims there are over 30,000 active installs of CM Updater, the 'One-Click' G1 root utility.

For the time being, Cyanogen said he is trying to come up with a workaround, including shipping the next version of CyanogenMOd as a "bare bones" ROM along with a utility for end-users to first backup their proprietary Google apps. Android ROM developers are also working on alternatives to these closed-source apps, all of which would appease Google and its business partners, but at the expense of pissing off open-source advocates, third-party ROM developers, and hacked G1 and Hero owners.

Should Google have let this one go? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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