Android 3.0 Kept Under Wraps

Google to Withhold Honeycomb Source Code for “Foreseeable Future”

Jessica Thornsby

Andy Rubin says Google aren’t releasing the Android 3.0 code just yet.

According to an article published by BusinessWeek, Google will delay the release of the Honeycomb source code “for the foreseeable future,” in an effort to prevent it from being altered by external programmers and customised for devices other than tablets. Some websites have theorised that Google may even wait until completing the next version of Android – codenamed Ice Cream – before releasing the next open source distribution of Android software.

Previously, Google have employed the strategy of allowing device makers early access to new Android releases, before making the source code publicly available a few months later. Large manufacturers, including HTC, Samsung Electronics, Motorola Mobility Holdings, reportedly already have access to Honeycomb – but the smaller hardware makers and the software developer community will have to wait a while longer. Brian Proffitt warns that this strategy could land Google in fresh lawsuits, as smaller hardware manufacturers find themselves unable to access the Honeycomb source code.

But, why is Google holding back the Honeycomb source code? Google’s Andy Rubin is quoted as saying that Honeycomb is currently aimed squarely at tablets and, if the source code was released now, developers could potentially put the software on phones and create “a really bad user experience.” He insists that them withholding the source code does not signal a change in Google’s open source strategy.

Android’s Apache Software License 2.0 license requires source code to be released when the executable files are released but, although it is common practice to release the source code and the binaries simultaneously, the license actually does not specify a timeframe. Google have previously taken advantage of this ambiguity by granting major hardware manufactures early access to the Android source code, ahead of the public release, and now they seem to be leveraging it again, by withholding Honeycomb.

The founding director of the Software Freedom Law Centre, Eben Moglen, sees Google’s hesitance to release the Honeycomb source code as a big mistake: “long experience teaches people that exposing the code to the community helps more than it hurts you,” he says, in favour of open source. Ryan Paul takes a more stern view on Google’s decision to keep the 3.0 source code under wraps. He takes into account the various lockdown mechanisms used to block the installation of third-party firmware on Android smartphones, and concludes that “the availability of Android source code after each release was really the last remnant of openness in Android—and now it’s gone.” He also accuses Google of “long (exhibiting) a pattern of behaviour in its Android dealings that reflects a disregard for openness and the third-party development community……the fact that they are declining to release source code now doesn’t seem like a change in direction.”

This isn’t the first time Honeycomb has been at the centre of some controversy. Some developers weighed the tablet-targeting Android 3.0 against previous releases of the platform, and wondered whether Google had effectively forked Android. The notion of Google holding back the Honeycomb source code in order to improve the Android 3.0 experience on the smartphone, could suggest that Google hasn’t forked Android – but it’s unlikely to win them favour in the open source community. This news comes at a bad time for Google, as some members of the community are also debating whether Google have violated the GPL with Android, by using Linux header files in a BSD-licensed library. Brown Rudnick partner Edward Naughton has published a report (pdf) on this subject.

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