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Why Google's Tighter Control Over Android Is a Good Thing

Last week, Google said it would not release the source for its Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" tablet to developers and would limit the OS to select hardware makers, at least initially. Now there are rumors reported by Bloomberg Businessweek that Google is requiring Android device makers to get UI changes approved by Google .

As my colleague Savio Rodrigues has written, limiting the Honeycomb code is not going to hurt the Android market . I believe reining in the custom UIs imposed on Android is a good thing. Let's be honest: They exist only so companies like Motorola, HTC, and Samsung can pretend to have any technology involvement in the Android products they sell and claim they have some differentiating feature that should make customers want their model of an Android smartphone versus the umpteenth otherwise-identical Android smartphones out there.

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The reality of Android is that it is the new Windows : an operating system used by multiple hardware vendors to create essentially identical products, save for the company name printed on it. That of course is what the device makers fear -- both those like Acer that already live in the race-to-the-bottom PC market and those like Motorola and HTC that don't want to.

But these cosmetic UI differences cause confusion among users, sending the message that Android is a collection of devices, not a platform like Apple's iOS. As Android's image becomes fragmented, so does the excitement that powers adoption. Anyone who's followed the cell phone industry has seen how that plays out: There are 1 billion Java-based cell phones out there, but no one knows it, and no one cares, as each works so differently that the Java underpinnings offer no value to anyone but Oracle, which licenses the technology.

Google initially seemed to want to play the same game as Oracle (and before it Sun), providing an under-the-hood platform for manufacturers to use as they saw fit. But a couple curious things happened:

  • Vendors such as Best Buy started selling the Android brand, to help create a sense of a unified alternative to BlackBerry and iOS, as well as to help prevent customers from feeling overwhelmed by all the "different" phones available. Too much choice confuses people, and salespeople know that.
  • Several mobile device makers shipped terrible tablets based on the Android 2.2 smartphone OS -- despite Google's warnings not to -- because they were impatient with Google's slow progress in releasing Honeycomb. These tablets, such as the Galaxy Tab , were terrible products and clear hack jobs that only demonstrated the iPad's superiority . I believe they also finally got the kids at Google to understand that most device makers have no respect for the Android OS and will create the same banal products for it as they do for Windows. The kids at Google have a mission, and enabling white-box smartphones isn't it.

I've argued before that Android's fragmentation, encouraged by its open source model, was a mistake . Google should drive the platform forward and ride herd on those who use it in their devices. If it wants to make the OS available free to stmulate adoption, fine. But don't let that approach devolve into the kind of crappy results that many device makers are so clueless (or eager -- take your pick) to deliver.

So far, Google's been lucky in that the fragmentation has been largely in cosmetic UI areas, which doesn't affect most Android apps and only annoys customers when they switch to a new device. The fragmentation of Android OS versions across devices is driving many Android developers away , as are fears over a fractured set of app stores. Along these lines, Google has to break the carriers' update monopoly, as Apple did, so all Android devices can be on the same OS page.

It is true that HTC's Eris brought some useful additions to the stock Android UI, serving as a model for future improvements. But the HTC example is the exception, and Google's apparent new policy would allow such enhancements if Google judges them to be so.

More to the point is what the tablet makers such as ViewSonic, Dell, and Samsung did with their first Android tablets. Their half-baked products showed how comfortable they are soiling the Android platform. For them, Android is just another OS to throw on hardware designed for something else in a cynical attempt to capture a market wave. The consistently low sales should provide a clue that users aren't buying the junk. But do they blame the hardware makers or Google? When so many Android devices are junk, it'll be Google whose reputation suffers.

Let's not forget Google's competition, and why Google can't patiently teach these companies about user experience: Apple, a company that knows how to nurture, defend, and evangelize a platform. Let's also not forget the fate of Microsoft and Nokia , who let their Windows Mobile and Symbian OSes fragment into oblivion. And let's remember that the one company that knows how the vanilla-PC game is played, Hewlett-Packard, has decided to move away from the plain-vanilla Windows OS and stake its future on its own platform, WebOS , for both PCs and mobile devices. In that world, a fragmented, confused, soiled Android platform would have no market at all.

If Google finally understands that Android is a platform to be nurtured and defended, it has a chance of remaining a strong presence in the mobile market for more than a few faddish years. If not, it's just throwing its baby into the woods, where it will find cruel exploitation, not nurturing or defense.

This article, " Why Google's tighter control over Android is a good thing ," was originally published at InfoWorld.com . Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen .

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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