Android, Google’s new mobile software platform based on the Linux kernel, is scheduled to be released in early 2008 under an open-source license. But hope for the new platform is mingled with worries that it won’t be as free and open as the initial publicity surrounding the release strenuously implies.
“I wouldn’t bother with this,” says Bruce Perens, a professional evangelist of open-source software. “It’s so easy to find a project that is 100 percent open source right now to work on, or indeed to create one. That way, I’d be a little more sure that my work wouldn’t be locked up with proprietary stuff forever.”
Android’s release last week was initially greeted as a breath of fresh air by those hoping to inject more freedom into the smartphone industry, which is currently saddled by various restrictions. Lockdowns on hardware functionality, demanded by service providers and enforced by the manufacturers, have resulted in a marketplace filled with crippled devices that are only minimally configurable or expandable.
However, the announcement that Android would be released under a software license which allows for some restrictions to remain in place, albeit in a more limited way, has given many pause.
The Android software platform will be licensed not under the GPL, the license that covers Linux and GNU software, but under the Apache License, which does not include the GPL’s restriction on closed modifications.
According to the Android FAQ page, “The Apache license allows manufacturers and mobile operators to innovate using the platform without the requirement to contribute those innovations back to the open-source community.” The page promises that “industry players can add proprietary functionality to their products based on Android without needing to contribute anything back to the platform,” and, to be sure, “companies can remove functionality if they choose.”
Those restrictions, plus the licensing of the preliminary developer tools, have raised red flags for some potential developers.
“What happened to the whole ‘full stack’ and ‘open-source’ thing,” software developer Robilad asks on his blog, referring to the language used by Google in Android’s announcement. “Let’s just hope Google gets around to releasing the actual Android code under an open-source license before 2017.”
Google’s wording doesn’t give a clear impression about who’s going to reap the benefits of Android. With one hand, Android offers (in a video on the project’s website) “the ability to have your cellphone do whatever the heck you want it to do” while the other hand panders to “industry players” who may want to curtail that user experience.
GPL-licensed code makes no such compromises.
“Anyone is free to use, change or improve our code,” explains Steven Mosher, vice president of marketing for OpenMoko, another Linux-based mobile platform which now finds itself in competition with Android.
“They owe us nothing,” Mosher says of smartphone manufacturers using OpenMoko. “Our only request is this: They owe other people the same rights we gave them. We give you the code for free. If you change it or improve it, you must give your work back to the common good.”
According to Mosher, members of the open-source community are concerned that, by choosing the Apache License, Android is “using ‘open source’, but cynically neglecting its principles.”
Google isn’t terribly worried about the licensing controversy. “We’ve already seen tremendous developer interest in the Android SDK, with downloads surpassing all others on code.google.com,” says a spokesperson.
Hal Steger, vice president of marketing for Funambol, an open-source messaging software project, accordingly warns that “Google’s choice to go with the Apache License will likely result in some developers sticking with the OpenMoko-type approach.”
Clearly, in order to launch a successful mobile platform, it’s necessary to woo the powers that be. Even the combined might of Google and the open-source community won’t soon overthrow the iron whim of the cellular carriers. Some open-source advocates, though, do see potential in Google’s power to broaden the market.
Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin finds one thing especially promising: the challenge Google has brought against the status quo, closed-source software model for handhelds currently dominated by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and Symbian (the software platform jointly owned by Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Siemens and other handset makers).
“Google is proliferating the use of the Linux kernel as the standard for mobile devices,” says Zemlin. “Similar to the server operating environment, the world will likely end up with two camps: Linux-based phones on one side with Microsoft and Symbian on the other. My guess is Microsoft and Symbian will continue to lag due to the lack of agility from their proprietary development models. It’s difficult for them to compete with open-source licenses, no matter which specific one.”
by Paul Adams on Wired.com