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.