Is Open-Source always open? The case of Android!

Since the late 90ies companies started to commercially use Open Source Software in their products. Some say it is a philosophy, others it is just a pragmatic methodology. However, the OSI (Open Source Initiative) and the FSF (Free Software Foundation) established distinct criteria to certify software to be open source: The software must allow a free redistribution, must have an open and freely available source code and it must allow derived works. Recent discussions of Google’s open source mobile operating system Android made me wonder if the software really meets the criteria of allowing full openness.

Google acquired the small software company Android Inc. in 2005 and later joined the OHA (Open Handset Alliance) in 2007 to develop the mobile operating system Android. The OHA is a consortium of more than 80 member companies that can be differentiated in mobile net providers (such as T-Mobile, Sprint, Vodafone, etc.), semiconductor vendors (QUALCOMM, Marvell, Intel, etc.) and handset manufacturers (HTC, Motorola, Samsung, etc).  The Android OS has a Linux kernel and is certified under the Apache 2 license. Since 2007 Android has been commonly developed and updated among the member companies of the OHA, with the leadership of Google.

Google releases new versions of Android OS on a regularly basis and one can freely download the software. The source code is open, freely available and the Apache 2 license allows to also freely redistribute the source code.  However, it is in question whether or not it allows a derived work on the software. A usual strong characteristic of open source software is the community that commonly develops and fixes the software.  But where is that community in the Android case? Is it the OHA? But the OHA is definitely not an open consortium, since membership is only by invitation.

Having this situation, it is the question: What is a regular user or even an advanced developer able to do with the Android software? Android software versions are released on a regular basis and users have to analyze ex post, which changes have been made. The development process between the version releases is thus not transparent. This is very different compared to other open source projects, where every change can directly be evaluated. Members of the community can thus directly react and comment to the changes and consequently also contribute by fixing bugs and discuss about possible solutions. In that sense the Android software appears to be very close and in my opinion does not meet the criteria of allowing derived work.

Handset manufacturers such as HTC, Sony, Samsung or Motorola can further extend the Android OS with their own closed variations (the Apache 2 license allows to add closed application on the software). For example if you buy the new HTC Incredible S, the user interface “Sense” is programmed on top of the Android OS and users are not able to modify anything or port another Android version to their phone. Other examples are the Sony Xperia Play or the Motorola Defy, where Android is modified and thus unchangeable connected to the device.

I think the situation shows that Google clearly does not want any external participation of third parties to develop the Android OS. Even though the software is open in a sense of source code and license, it definitely lags openness in the development process. Should we really call this open source? Is this the initial intention of open source ? And what could be new criteria?

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About timpohlmann

Tim Pohlmann is a post-doctoral researcher in economics at Mines ParisTech and Berlin Institute of Technology. He specializes in the economic analysis of markets for technology. He earned his doctoral degree with the highest distinctions in August 2012 from the Berlin Institute of Technology with a dissertation on patenting and coordination in ICT standardization. Tim’s research covers the empirical analysis of the trade of patents, patent trolls, standardization consortia and patent pools. He has presented his work at a large number of international conferences. Tim has been actively involved in preparing studies for the European Commission and the German Federal Government on the role of patents in technological standardization and business models in Open Source Software. Doctoral Thesis SSRN author page
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3 Responses to Is Open-Source always open? The case of Android!

  1. Benjamin says:

    Google describes it’s motivation for open source on the official angroid page as follows:

    “Android is an open-source software stack for mobile devices, and a corresponding open-source project led by Google. We created Android in response to our own experiences launching mobile apps. We wanted to make sure that there was no central point of failure, so that no industry player can restrict or control the innovations of any other. That’s why we created Android, and made its source code open.”

    http://source.android.com/

    You can easily download a software development environment here and submit your own changes on the software. These will be checked by Google and added to the project with the next patch published if it’s helpful or coveres any bug.
    So I think android DOES meet all the criteria you stated.

    • Dear Benjamin,

      thanks for your comment and the useful info from the Google page. I totally agree in most of the points you make. Android is an open source software, otherwise it wouldn’t have gotten the certified Apache 2 license. However, I still believe that submitting changes and Google (alone) decides if they will be included or not and if it is helpful (for whom? Google? OHA? The user?), is not how open source project should be working. If you send your changes to Google, they can see it- not the community, they decide if and also when to include it-not the community. Still, the whole process of software development remains to be not transparent and thus in my opinion not open in a way of derived works.

  2. timpohlmann says:

    I just read a recent comment (May 10th 2011) by Android Chief Andy Rubin on criticisms that the Google OS lacks in openness. I believe it shows the different views of openness, that I keep having problems with:

    “Open source is different from a community-driven project. We’re light on community, but everything we do ends up in an open source repository. We make the code open source when the first device is ready. We’re building a platform, we’re not building an app. When you’re building a platform, you evolve and improve APIs, and sometimes APIs are deprecated.
    When you’re dealing with new APIs community processes typically don’t work — it’s really hard to tell when you’re done, and it’s hard to tell when it’s a release and when it’s beta. And developers need an expectation that the APIs they’re using are done. If someone were to look at an early release, they could start using APIs that aren’t ready and their software might not work with devices. We’re in a shepherd role and we made the decision to release the platform in the 1.0, 2.0, etc. scenario to make sure these APIs that developers are using are available on all devices on the platform. And going forward it’s part of our job to make sure that stays together. A community process is more difficult to manage — we take submissions, but it’s in a more controlled way as far as how it comes back out. “

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