Google is cracking down on Android’s “openness”. This much is clear.
And really, let’s be honest: Android never was fully open. If you wanted a full-service smartphone that used Google’s applications – Gmail, Maps etc. – you had to sign a contract with Google to use the OS in particular ways.
But now that Google are not letting Android 3.0 out into the world, it’s clear something is changing. Google are exerting more control over Android, and in comments on every story about it across the web, people seem a bit upset about it.
But a more closed, more tightly closed Android will be better for everyone. Here’s why.
A More Unified Experience
One of the great things about Android is that both you and manufacturers can customize it in any number of ways. That is also Android’s biggest downside.
Right now, because people can do whatever they want with Android, they can build phones/tablets/PMPs etc. that cut themselves off from the broader platform. A great example of this was Sony Ericsson and the Xperia X10. By building their (awful) Timescape and Mediascape applications into the OS of the phone, they made it incredibly hard for themselves to upgrade to new versions of Anrdoid. So buyers of a high-end Android phone were stuck with Android 1.6 or 2.1 and the numerous performance and interface issues of older versions of the OS.
By more tightly controlling Android, Google will have more say about the spread of new version of the OS, preventing the prevalent problem now in which numerous Android users cannot use various apps because they are waiting to be upgraded to new versions.
Moreover, some degree of UI standardization – both within the OS itself and between handsets – will make adoption of Android easier and more accessible as switching handsets will become more simple and straighforward.
It's Still Open in the Right Ways
Even if certain aspects of Android become closed, as an OS, it’s still open in the ways it should be: apps. You can still develop apps of almost any sort for Android. Whether that’s replacing the stock keyboard with Swype, using Winamp for music or having notes from Evernote directly on your home screen, Android will still be adaptable and customizable in the way it matters: to users.
Whether Google are abiding by principles of open source or are distributing code back out into the programmer ecosystem is a separate issue from – and indeed, possibly even the opposite of – what is best for end users.
Manufacturers Will be Forced to Differentiate in New Ways
As it stands now, manufacturers of Android sets focus their differentiation on interface. HTC has their Sense, Samsung has TouchWiz and so on.
But if Google were to reign in the (let’s face it) often very bad additions to the stock Android UI, they’d have to find other ways to differentiate. And that means that rather than rebuilding their entire interfaces, they could one of two things: a) focus on apps that take advantage of distinct hardware features like the Xperia Play; b) build content solutions for Android, as this one way it severely lags iOS. Build out an easy way for Android users to get legit, new movies and TV shows, and Android manufacturers can distinguish themselves with ecosystems rather than silly widgets.
A Better Experience for End Users
If Google are ‘closing’ Android, then it’s happening in very specific ways: to limit the fragmentation of OS versions and interfaces; to limit the establishment of competing ecosystems.
But though there is much in that to debate, if one’s concern is what using an Android phone is like for end-users, then a little more control and centralization on the part of Google can only be a good thing.