September 9, 2010 | by Andrew Kameka
There are times when discussions become sidetracked because the participating parties fail to understand or misappropriate the definition of key terms that affect the issue. Android is one of those cases because people tend to speak of the always vague and evolving “spirit of open.”
Open source is not a spirit; it’s a term and license form that fosters innovation through shared knowledge. It means that developers and software creators make the core of their production materials (code) freely available to others. Company A can build a product and decide to permit others to use vital parts of the code, provided that Company B respects terms of the license. That company is then free to build a product on top of that code and even sell it to end users as long as it respects the license agreement.
It’s the source, silly
People overlook that the latter half of the “open source” term is the most important part of the discussion. The source is open, not the experience. Since Android debuted in 2008, people have wrongly assumed that open means everything is free, everything is the same, and everything is about giving the user choice. That’s not the case at all.
Google develops Android and makes it available to manufacturers who can then implement it on their products. HTC is free to layer Sense on top of Android, AT&T is free to add crap applications nobody wants, and Sprint is free to block certain features it doesn’t want to implement. These actions are not a violation of open source in any way. I’ll concede that it’s a violation of common sense and user goodwill, though.
Open is about the choices made available to creators, not consumers. If someone has a problem with Verizon putting Bing on the Fascinate in place of Google Search, the issue is that Verizon is promoting a substandard product to make money. Yes, it would be great if users had the choice to switch to Google, but open source is about Verizon and Samsung having the choice to develop an Android product to its liking. You don’t like that Skype is available only on Verizon? Tough. Skype is free to make whatever business decision it chooses. Just because Android is open source doesn’t mean the same is true for Skype as a company or product.
Android users and media personnel frequently complain that carriers and manufacturers change the Android experience and that’s not “in the spirit” of open, which is a false statement. The changes those companies make is a direct reflection of open. Google wrote the code, made it available to the OHA, and the OHA members made their tweaks.
That is why we have to refocus the discussion into the proper terms. If you embrace Android because it is open, then address the negative impacts of that openness appropriately. Don’t rail against companies for changing Android and claim that it violates the spirit of openness. Rail against those companies because those changes don’t meet your tastes or needs. You can’t have it both ways and extol open source as a virtue then complain when companies rightfully change the source to create a product they think consumers want.
So, everybody, focus on the end results and address them accordingly. Do us all a favor and STFU about open source.