Google's Andy Rubin Responds: Android is as Open as Ever

By Wesley Fenlon

Same old Android, same old rules? Maybe--but Google hasn't denied claims that some cooperative partners will gain access to new versions of Android before the rest.

A week ago a report from Business Week indicated that Google was tightening its grip on Android, revising its policies to stem fragmentation and curb the software modifications that can radically alter the Android experience. After giving the rumor a week to rile the community up, Google’s Andy Rubin has denied the allegations, saying the fragmentation clauses remain unchanged since 2007 and claiming “as always, device makers are free to modify Android to customize any range of features for Android devices.”

As Will wrote last week, it was about time for Google to address the software that sometimes ruins Android. Does this blog post from Rubin mean those changes we hope for are completely out the window? Not quite--though Google won’t be blocking device makers from slapping their own interfaces on top of stock Android, there may still be incentives in place to discourage sloppy customization.

“There will be no more willy-nilly tweaks to the software. No more partnerships formed outside of Google's purview. From now on, companies hoping to receive early access to Google's most up-to-date software will need approval of their plans...

The Google that once welcomed all comers to help get its mobile software off the ground has become far more discriminating—especially for companies that want to include Google services such as search and maps on their hardware. Google also gives chip and device makers that abide by its rules a head start in bringing Android products to market, according to the executives.”

TechCrunch notes that Rubin doesn’t quite address this issue when he says devicemakers are free to modify Android. While Google may not be holding its own apps back from Samsung just because it throws TouchWiz on a phone, it might bestow the latest and greatest version of Android only to those partners who pass their customization plans through Google before implementing them--or at least give those companies a head start, which will generate plenty of consumer interest. That means some devices may be stuck running Froyo or Gingerbread while more phones follow in the footsteps of the Nexus S and Galaxy S with early access to Android firmware updates.

Rubin denied that Google has plans to lock Android down to a specific ARM chipset but did acknowledge Honeycomb won’t go open source until it’s ready for phones. He calls it a temporary delay, not a change in strategy.

If we take everything Rubin says at face value, absolutely nothing has changed about Android--which may not really be a good thing, as fragmentation and sometimes-shoddy UI design can hamper the experience. If we remain suspicious, there’s hope that Google is pressuring or baiting manufacturers into easing up on janky software. As more Android phones are released over the coming year, we’ll probably find out which situation has borne out.