Aug 04 AT 2:54 PM Edgar Cervantes 49 Comments

Android not that “open” after all


Google’s biggest pride when it comes to Android has definitely been that it’s “open source.” Android is without a doubt the most successful smartphone OS currently, partly due to the fact that it is open. But just how open is our favorite smartphone OS? Open source is defined as a software with a shared source code, which may be distributed in its pure state or modified. That’s simple. But the definition is not where the matter ends. While Android is mostly open source by definition, there’s a whole ethos to the Open Source movement (Open Governance). And that’s where Android falls short.

Vision Mobile has conducted a study that places Android as the least “open” of the open source mobile platforms. Android was put to the test against a diverse variety of mobile platforms, including MeeGo, Linux, Qt, WebKit, Mozilla, Eclipse and Symbian.

We selected these projects based on breadth of coverage; we picked both successful (Android) and unsuccessful projects (Symbian); both single-sponsor (Qt) and multi-sponsor projects (Eclipse); and both projects based on meritocracy (Linux) and membership status (Eclipse).Liz LaffanVision Mobile

You may ask what this open governance entails. After all, not everyone is familiarized with the open source world (though we all brag about it!). Vision Mobile used 13 metrics in 4 categories to grade the “openness” of each platform. The list is as follows:

  • Access: availability of the latest source code, developer support mechanisms, public roadmap and transparency of decision-making
  • Development: the ability of developers to influence the content and direction of the project
  • Derivatives: the opportunity for developers to create and distribute derivatives of the source code in the form of spin-off projects, handsets or applications.
  • Community: a community structure that does not discriminate between developers

After grading all mobile platforms against these categories, Android scored the least “open” of all the platforms at 23% open. QT and Symbian followed at 58%. That’s quite the jump, isn’t it? The most open of all the platforms actually happened to be iOS. (Gotcha! It wasn’t). The most open was actually Eclipse at 84%. Check out the chart below to see how the results play out.

This comes as no surprise, since Android has not exactly been the perfect example of open source. Android is “open” because the source code can be used and modified by manufacturers and developers. But the platform is, for the most part, still controlled by Google. Devices have to be approved in order to be supported. Most decisions are still made by Google. Transparency is not as prominent, and the roadmap of platform development is often hidden. These are just some of the factors that contributed to Android’s low score.

Android is an anomaly among open source platforms. Such projects are usually much more successful when the governance is more “open.” The fact is, outside developers can often do a much better job at improving the OS. Just like true communism, open source projects are meant to be improved and optimized by us, the users (theoretically). While Android is the least open source, it has proven to be the most successful of all the other open source platforms. There might be multiple reasons for this phenomenon.

Android is lead by an amazingly powerful company. This may have been what gave them an initial boost. Google is a company with power, resources and the ability to hire the best programmers and developers. Android has also received much support from all major manufacturers, as well as the community. (We can’t forget about our community developers!). This leads to one of the fullest, most intuitive and flexible mobile operating systems we’ve ever seen.

But Android’s success is partly based on its lack of “openness.” This is a matter Andy Rubin clarified a few months ago when he mentioned “Android is open sourced but not a community-driven project.” Rather, it’s a balance between open and closed governance. Android stays partly closed, so that the OS can stay within the safe arms of Google’s support while allowing for improvement by developers. Do you think Google should adopt more open governance ideas? Would that be potentially dangerous for the platform? We all dream of a perfect open source world, but much like communism, it isn’t completely possible. To check the full study report, simply go to Vision Mobile’s research site and download the .pdf file from the “Open Governance Index” section.

Via: Ars Technica

Source: Vision Mobile

Hello, I am Edgar Cervantes. I am an avid Android fan, and keeping myself updated on the topic is part of my daily life. I will always work hard to give the best of me to our community of Android enthusiasts, and I am very honored to be part of this ship. Hopefully we can all enjoy sharing our knowledge and opinions!

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  • Mike L

    Question: Where does Apple iOS fit in with this equation? If it’s on this chart it would allow for the argument that Android is ‘more open’. I really hope no one considers Android open source. Working with Linux for years and similar projects I fear the term open source may be losing it’s true meaning.

    • SparkyXI

      iOS is not open source AT ALL – fully locked down in every way. Changes to the OS are forbidden in iOS, as opposed to Android allowing devs to modify the system in certain ways.

    • Edgar Cervantes

      This study only includes other Open Source platforms. That is why it does not include other platforms like iOS or Blackberry.

      • Splendor

        If you’re going to bring up iOS in the article (like you did in your dumb “gotcha” line) you should really take the time to point out to the reader that iOS is not included and why.

        To this point, I am really starting to dislike the playful writing style on this site.

        • SparkyXI

          Plenty of other Android sites out there, friend. I, for one, enjoy a sense of humor. If you want a writer with a stick up their a**, go pick up a copy of USA Today or the New Yorker or something.

          I think most everyone that reads articles on this site is pretty well aware that iOS isn’t open source (common knowledge, really)… but hey, who am I to assume…

          • Splendor

            If it was common knowledge the author wouldn’t need to answer a question about it in the comments.

        • steven

          I thought it was a great joke.( I cracked a smile when I read it) If you like just the plain boring facts, do us all a favor and troll some Apple iphone site. What a prude. I bet your still a virgin.

          • Sean the Electrofreak

            Well, he at least knows the difference between “your” and “you’re”.

    • Ben Gildenstein

      If you freely use the source and can fork the project, it’s open source.

      • Sean the Electrofreak

        Wellll… I know some XDA developers, and they’re desperately trying to get CM7 ported onto the Epic 4G. They’ve hit a brick wall because Samsung is taking its sweet time posting the source code to its updates to the Epic, and since Samsung doesn’t follow a lot of traditional conventions, they’re left making wild guesses as to how to implement certain functions into the framework.

        So, Android might be open source, and Google may require manufacturers to post their source code, but when it’s not done in a timely fashion, it’s not terribly open.

        • Sam G

          Actually manufacturers don’t have to post their source code. Android’s licensed under BSD.

          • You are dumb

            You are wrong in every conceivable fashion.

            The Linux Kernel is GPL
            Android is Apache
            You are an idiot.

  • SparkyXI

    Android *thrives* on Google’s involvement. If Google took Android and told devs to change absolutely anything they wanted, we would have several different operating systems. Google wants the branding, the look, and the user experience – Google wants people to use Android because it’s a GOOGLE experience (like YouTube, Gmail, etc). Give away the farm, and it’s no longer a “Google” product, but a product “based on Google”.

    • Sam G

      What look and user experience. AFAIK Android and its apps don’t yet have a very consistent UI especially after the likes of HTC and Samsung have messed with the interface.

      • SparkyXI

        But it’s still Android, and it’s obvious. For instance, say I put two phones in front of you – same model, but one has Android, and one has Symbian. You know what’s what just by looking at it and using it, regardless of the UI tweaks. Even with MIUI (*radically* different look and feel), there are very obvious tell-tale signs of the Android OS underneath.

      • Brenton

        The UI is most-likely a shell that sits on top of the OS, rather than being built in to it like Windows.

  • Mil

    It’s pretty well understood that there are different levels of “Open”. If Android is the least Open to it’s peers then does that really matter? Android is popular, things are progressing well with updates and a lot of people are happy in investing into Android based products. Google, are free to do what they want with their product so I don’t understand why people give them such a hard time.

    • Leonick

      Yea, Android is doing great, don’t know what that has to do with this though.
      Google are always bragging about how open Android is, that’s why someone decided to take a look how open they really are.
      Judging by this I think they could use the word open a bit less, it was probably the most often used word at the last Google I/O :p

  • Ben Gildenstein

    Andy Rubin is correct.

    Take a look at community driven OSS products like Ubuntu, GNOME, or Maemo (Meego’s predicessor) and try to argue that these products have vision and mass adoption. Community driven projects *don’t* work as well as people would want to believe they do.

    Android is doing extremely well leading its project and accepting contributions that fit into its vision rather than endless nerd debates and lack of vision.

    • Transient

      I agree 100%. I’d go as far as to say that Android phones would be better if Android was closed source. Of course, I doubt it’d get anywhere near the level of adoption it currently has.

    • Sam G

      Yeh I mean look at Chrome and Opera. Though Chrome might be open source, neither browser is community driven and both innovated a lot more than Firefox, a community driven project, does now. Firefox now is almost a carbon copy of Chrome.

    • Jim D.

      “Community driven projects do’t work as well as people would want them to believe they do”

      That is just not true. How about these as examples: Apache, GNU, cygwin, Linux (not a specific distribution), Postfix, BIND, ISC DHCP.

      You cannot make blanket statements like that because for every project you site I can site just as many that are working.

      • Matt

        How is gnu successful? Gnu systems account for some 1% of the market. Also, they are basically copying Unix. They had no real vision, besides compatibility. None of those projects are very successful. Also, it is “cite”. And there are WAY WAY WAY more shitty open source projects than good ones. If you can’t see that, them you have already “drank the kool-aid”.

        • Matt

          Correction, apache andDHCP are successful. But this seems to be in spite of their open governance, rather than because of it.

  • steve19137

    Maybe they should offer interviews to some of the more serious Android ROM devs out there. Ya know, the ones that take Android to the next level, like CyanogenMod, MIUI, and those kernel developers. Either way, their current model is awesome, and it really doesn’t need too many tweaks.

    • Transient

      Of those three examples, MIUI is the only one that brings a consumer level end product to the table. And ironically, everything that makes MIUI great is closed source.

      • steve19137

        yes, thats true. i love the MIUI rom the best out of all over those for various reasons, one of which is that its the most polished. those guys should be making us pay for that rom. and your right, the closed source bit is what makes it awesome :D

      • Sam G

        But if any of the major players introduced a UI similar to MIUI’s then Apple would the sue the hell out of them for copyright and patent infringement. And we all know Google’s got nothing to back themselves up, yet…

  • jefmes

    I’m tired of this argument…no, it’s not open in the sense of community driven development, but you can download all the code yourself for previously released versions, compile it yourself and do essentially whatever you want without Google’s approval.

    One of my favorite tweets on the subject…

    @Arubin Andy Rubin
    the definition of open: “mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git:// ; repo sync ; make”


    common , how open do you expect it to be?

    • Leonick

      After watching the keynotes from the last Google I/O I would certainly expect it not to be at the bottom of that list.

      I must say, after all the talk about how Android is so open and wonderful and everything Apple do is closed and evil it’s pretty funny to see Webkit (opensource project owned by Apple) beat Android in openness :p

      • Sam G

        The only kind thing that Apple has ever done.

  • Digital Jedi

    This article is partly wrong. Symbian is no longer as open source as it used to be. Elop saw to that when he brought Symbian back in house and stopped giving out the code.

  • odnamra

    Ugh. I am so tired of blogs posting the results of this ridiculous study.

    It’s unfair to compare Android to some of these other projects. Have you actually seen the Eclipse Dash project that they mention in the report? It’s a fucking joke:

    This whole exercise was nothing more than Vision Mobile cashing in on a campaign of disingenuous link bait.

    Pretty disappointed to see Android and Me adopt the same tired party-line as some of the other blogs.

    P.S. Sorry for being a dick, but I’m really annoyed by this.

  • diordna

    Where do you draw the line between open and cohesive? I hear a lot of complaints that Google needs to have more control in terms of the apps and the UI of Android to unify the OS. Then there’s the other argument that it’s not really open source. Android is a brand and if they want it to be successful to the masses there has to be some control. The fact that the code is released to the community is enough in my opinion. What other successful OS out there does that?

  • brandoHD

    When I see a Cyanogen build of Mozilla, Eclipse, Firefox, Linux, MeeGo, Qt, and Symbian or any developer for that matter, then I will be in a better position to discuss the “openess” of the other stuff mentioned above

  • 00quantameister

    I’m getting sick of this pointless debate that Android isn’t “open enough”. Linux is “open enough” and for 20 years of true “openness” how much marketshare does Linux have in that time?

    Less than 1 percent.

    For any player, having 20 years & not gaining an inch let alone a mile in the market is ultimately a failure. Its great for an extremely small niche of players & all the power to them. The question ultimately becomes what do you give up for the sake of being completely open? For the rest of us, we’re not so bound by foolish ideology that we’re willing to be religious purists just for the sake of making a point. The everyday person or persons who want to have the access, choice, & options that Android gives means capitulating to the two dirty words open source advocates hate.

    Authority & conformity.

    Frankly, I think Android’s just fine the way it is. If you want a truly open platform, go buy a phone that has an open OS! Nobody’s holding a gun to your head and making you buy Android or iPhone or Windows Phone or BlackBerry or any other player. You can buy your “open” phone & get service. But what will you lose? An extensive Apps catalog. Industry support. A thriving ecosystem. I’m sorry but that’s just too high a price to pay to join the elite open source purist club.

    Consumers have spoken loudly & Android won. Don’t like it? There are plenty of other open projects to get your idealism on. But for the rest of us in the real world, we want to get things done. Android is Android. Its open source but not community driven. Android shouldn’t have to change because of some complaints of open source purists or Rapper Chamillionaire’s iPhone biased complaints. If you don’t like it? Move on. The rest of us will enjoy the fruits of a well developed platform.

  • Cardiotoxicity

    I am fine with the fact that Android isn’t truly open source. Google can then better manage development, but the community can still improve on it. I love to mess with my phone and try new roms. I actually think it would be better for Google to control a little more and stop manufacturers from putting their terrible skins on Android.

  • wwJOSHdo

    Wow. I don’t care. Still gonna rock CM7

  • kwills88

    Android is like the US/Democracy…land of the free, where you got freedom of speech, but we still need the government to run things

    Apple is just a dictatorship.

    If everything were to be fully open source, we might get a lot of unwanted changes.

  • punzz

    Thtas too bad for android, at least. Android still google’s

  • inviolable

    lol least “open” of the open source mobile platforms. Well I’d say google/android has done quite well for itself as the dumbest smart kid in the class.

  • aj

    You im not to knowledgeable about this whole open governance thing but by the sounds of it i like balance that google has made between the two. Balance is always a good thing. You get to strict you become apple. You get to open or lax and googles OS name could be hurt by sub par OS modifications and redistribution on piece of crap phones. Just like if you dont drink at all well you have no fun and are a party pooper. If you drink to much well it might be funner but you dont remember anything and then find out about the idiotic things you did the night before that end up on youtube or facebook for everybody to see or wake up smelling like vomit. But you if you drink moderately enough to get a buzz and a little loose then its a win win situation. Just my opinion.

  • Derek

    The thing that pisses me off the most about android and it being “open” is the crap that the manufacturers put on there that makes their devices and code proprietary. Like HTC with their Sense. Samsung and their Touchwiz and the amount of proprietary drivers on the SGS. Same with Motorola and their locked down bootloaders and crappy Blur. All of that proprietary stuff locks the devices down for the most part. It takes a team of genius hackers to get in and modify the phone. That’s not “open”. Open platform phones would be where any user could get in and modify anything in the source code they want, recompile, then reload it on the phone. That is not what we have, matter of fact its about as far from what we have now as you can possibly get.

  • WIl

    As one comment says: “If you freely use the source and can fork the project, it’s open source.”

    Open source != Community-driven

    BTW Android is free (as in freedom) and open source software.

  • Brenton

    While these four categories are the aspirations of FOSS, they aren’t really “required”. “Open source” really is just about the code. Not how mature the communities around it are. Also, whether or not Google “supports” the code is irrelevant. No view of open source requires somebody else to support code that you’re modifying for yourself or others. The whole ‘going out on your own’ thing is just what it sounds like; the good and bad. Intel isn’t required to give a rat’s ass about Linux, and Red Hat’s doing just fine.

    This “opportunity” business is bullshit. Most of the “opportunity” is out of google’s control since they don’t own any of the cell phone manufacturers. This is largely a hardware issue that openness of the OS can’t help.

    This looks more like a link bait study the longer I think about it.

  • sylar

    This survey isn’t real clear. And the things it compare aren’t all the same thing really.

  • sylar

    This survey isn’t real clear. And the things it compares aren’t all the same thing really.