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Thursday, March 24, 2011, 06:00 pm PT (09:00 pm ET)

Google closes Android 3.0 Honeycomb source to prevent use on smartphones

Google has closed availability of the source code to Android 3.0 Honeycomb, explaining that the tablet-oriented software was not ready for use on smartphones and that the company didn't want outside developers or enthusiasts experimenting with it in unauthorized ways.

Google redefines open source as closed

Google's Android 3.0 Honeycomb platform was designed exclusively for tablet devices, running initially on Motorola's Xoom and later this summer on Samsung's redesigned Galaxy Tab and similar offerings from Toshiba and Acer. New Honeycomb tablets compete not just against Apple's iPad 2 but also RIM's Playbook and HP's webOS TouchPad.

Honeycomb tablets' key advantage over the iPad 2, Playbook and TouchPad is often cited to be the "openness" of Android, yet Google has decided to suspend open access to Android 3.0 source code for "the foreseeable future," explaining that it "is not yet ready to be altered by outside programmers and customized for other devices, such as phones," according to a report by BusinessWeek.

Google's Andy Rubin still maintains that "Android is an open-source project," saying, "we have not changed our strategy," while also saying that the company "took a shortcut" in deciding that it should prevent developers from putting the software on phones "and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones."

Of course, the primary allure of open source is that other companies can do things that the vendor has "no idea" about, such as when Apple took the KHTML source and created the Safari browser, or when Nokia, RIM and Google took Apple's resulting WebKit browser engine and created subsequent, unanticipated new products based on it.

Google closes open source as needed

Google has regularly taken the leading edge of Android development offline to work exclusively with select partners, leaving the larger community to wait until after a release to observe or contribute to the project. This was done at the original release of Android, again with the release of Android 2.0 (in conjunction with Motorola), and at the release of Android 3.0, which surprised the "community" with software that was developed internally, not in the manner of an community led open source project like Mozilla or Linux.

Apple has similarly delayed releases to its Darwin open source kernel project as it prepares major reference releases of Mac OS X, but Apple doesn't pretend that Darwin is a collaborative, community driven project. Instead, Apple is largely sharing its code with developers so they can better understand how it works and provide feedback.

At the same time, Apple also runs more collaborative open source projects such as the aforementioned WebKit, CUPS, and its Address Book, Calendar and Wiki Severs, which are all openly maintained by a development community larger than Apple itself. Apple does not close down WebKit development to prevent the community from doing things whenever it has "no idea if it will even work."

Rubin's "definition of open" doesn't apply to Android 3.0

Rubin's defense of taking the "open source" Android 3.0 offline is particularly comical given his previous definition of "open," a tweet directed at Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs that said "the definition of open: 'mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git://android.git.kernel.org/platform/manifest.git ; repo sync ; make' meaning that "open" explicitly meant being able to download the source code and freely do anything with it.

Jobs had pointed out that "Google loves to characterize Android as 'open' and iOS and iPhone as 'closed.' We find this a bit disingenuous and clouding the real difference between our two approaches."

He added that "many Android OEMs, including the two largest, HTC and Motorola, install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience. The user's left to figure it all out. Compare this with iPhone, where every handset works the same."

Jobs also described various Android app stores as "a mess for both users and developers" and noted that "many Android apps work only on selected handsets, or selected Android versions," alluding to the fact that most Android phones still run an OS release roughly a year old, and often can't be updated for 3 to 6 months after Google makes an update available.

Honeycomb tablets shut off before opening up

The flagship Honeycomb tablet, Motorola's Xoom, hasn't generated much interest in the premise of Android 3.0 being open, instead being ridiculed for its price, incomplete software and missing features it was advertised to have.

The company is reported to be sharply reducing manufacturing orders for the new tablet, with sources blaming its tapered off production on "the unclear market status of iPad-like tablet PCs."

Meanwhile, Motorola is also reported to be working on its own Android OS alternative, motivated by problems related to Android's platform fragmentation, issues with product differentiation and "issues related to Google's support for its partners."

Samsung has delayed its own plans to release a Honeycomb tablet after deciding that its original design was "inadequate" compared to the new iPad 2. It hopes to have its thinner models available by June.