Android "Closing Down," Investigations Coming Next?

The main way that Google argued its mobile operating system, Android, was superior to Apple's was its "openness." Google was merely the anchor of an open ecosystem of developers, OEMs and others. However that was never exactly true and it's less and less true today. 

An article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek reveals the degree to which Google is taking over Android to prevent "fragmentation," as well as advancing other goals and interests. The company sees the operating system as a strategic key to its future -- even though there's little direct revenue associated with it. Yet Android devices are Google search and advertising devices and the company has quickly come to dominate mobile advertising, in part because of Android's early success. 

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Google says its procedures are about quality control, fixing bugs early, and building toward a "common denominator" experience, says John Lagerling, director of global Android partnerships at Google. "After that, the customization can begin."

Over the past few months, according to several people familiar with the matter, Google has been demanding that Android licensees abide by "non-fragmentation clauses" that give Google the final say on how they can tweak the Android code—to make new interfaces and add services—and in some cases whom they can partner with. Google's Rubin says that such clauses have always been part of the Android license, but people interviewed for this story say that Google has recently tightened its policies.

Facebook, for example, has been working to fashion its own variant of Android for smartphones. Executives at the social network are unhappy that Google gets to review Facebook's tweaks to Android, say two people who weren't comfortable being named talking about the business. Google has also tried to hold up the release of Verizon Android devices that make use of Microsoft's rival Bing search engine, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

The problem is not Google's efforts to ensure quality or establish standards. It's the rhetoric of openness and the apparent reversal of that now, as detailed in the article. There's also a perception of capriciousness on Google's part around Android.

The wide and enthusiastic embrace of Android by third parties is responsible for its popularity and success. However when the iPhone emerged Android was effectively the only place to turn for Motorola, HTC and other OEMs. Symbian wasn't competitive and neither was Windows Mobile at the time. 

HTC, Motorola and Samsung bet big on Android. That's partly why it will capture the top smartphone OS spot this year, according to IDC. Had Android not started out as an "open" platform, with the promise of third party "tweaks" and modifications, it probably wouldn't be where it is today.

Screen shot 2011-03-29 at 9.48.50 AM

There are indications that when Google is threatend or unhappy with a development in the Android ecosystem it will intervene to protect its own self interest. This is the gist of the BusinessWeek article. However there's a darker version of this in the facts alleged in a lawsuit filed by Skyhook Wireless.

There, Google allegedly used its control over Android to disrupt economic relationships Skyhook had with two major Android handset OEMs. If true the case is very disturbing and directly contradicts Google's efforts to cast itself as the benevolent shepherd of an "open" software platform.

Meanwhile Samsung and Motorola, key Android partners, are contemplating ways to lessen their dependence on Android. Samsung has a homegrown mobile OS (Bada) and Motorola is contemplating developing one as a hedge against too much reliance on Android. However neither of these is likely to succeed at the level that Android has. 

As Google control over Android grows some partners have become upset, prompting complaints to the US Justice Department, the article reveals. The Justice Department (or FTC) may take up a near-term investigation but almost certainly the Europeans will at some point. They're currently conducting an antitrust investigation about Google's dominance of search on the PC. However Google is even more dominant in mobile search. 

I first (somewhat radically) predicted in December that Google would eventually be separated from control over Android. Given the information in the BusinessWeek piece, absent renewed "restraint" by Google, I'm increasingly led to believe my prediction will come true.