Free and Proprietary Software: Google’s Balancing Act – by “Eric F”

Free Software has pushed itself into the spotlight with Mozilla Firefox and Linux.  Businesses, while wary of its philosophy, are beginning to understand its usefulness.  Google, notably, has tried to work closely with the open source community, as both an user and a contributor.

One of their most recent projects, the Android operating system for mobile phones, was built by Google and then released under the Apache license to the open source community.  Android was initially met with some controversy, especially given its licensing.  Instead of licensing under GPL, Google chose the Apache license, which allows for proprietary modifications be made to Android, so long as the copyright notice and disclaimer are preserved.  Android was released in Q4 2008 and Google has since benefited from the work of programmers, who have developed ‘mods’ aiming to increasing Android’s functionality.

However, on September 25th of this year, one of the Android community’s most prominent ‘modders,’ Steve Kondik, received a Cease and Desist letter from Google.  Steve Kondik had been distributing a ROM called Cyanogen, which was built from the Android framework.  The problem lay not in that Kondik was distributing Android, which was open source, but that he was distributing Google’s core, but proprietary, apps, Gmail, Google Maps, etc.  These apps were part of the “Google Experience” phones and were licensed through the phone manufacturers.  Therefore, while Cyanogen could be continued to be developed and distributed, Google’s apps would need to be removed and anyone who installed Cyanogen would be left without them.  Normally, this would be a minor issue.  However, Google’s apps were central to the Android experience, with the average user expecting  Google’s apps to come baked in.  Without them, any development would be crippled.

Since, Google has experienced a tremendous backlash on the Android community.  While everyone assents to Google’s legal right and its self interest (Google, in a blog post responding to the controversy, has stated that, “Unauthorized distribution of this software harms us just like it would any other business, even if it’s done with the best of intentions.”), many insist that leaving developers such as Kondik alone is better for everyone, especially Google’s reputation among developers.

This issue has clarified the important difference between free software and open source.  And while this issue may have hurt Google’s reputation or even dampened developer enthusiasm, it is important to remember that mobile networks remain extremely closed and manufacturers, as they tentatively take steps towards an open source platform, are another key part of innovation.  Google’s demonstration of its willingness to protect proprietary software on this open system may ensure that more devices are developed for Android, thus increasing its relevance and hopefully its market share.

The resolution to this particular story has been predominantly positive.  Developers, including Cyanogen, have formed the Open Android Alliance, which is dedicated to developing open source alternatives to Google’s primary applications.  Kondik, himself, blogged on the Cyanogen site that “[a] lot of people are helping to work many of these issues out, notably the guys from Google (Dan and JBQ) who manage the open-source project.”

Given the community of developers and Google’s private interests, conflicts were bound to happen.  Yet, the compromise that Google has struck – making its rights clear while working the community – seems to be the right way forward.  Android will continue to be developed in ways outside of Google’s control, but will nonetheless increase user usage of the internet and, by extension, Google’s services.  And the ordinary customers, outside of the open source community, who have never heard of Android and know of ‘open source’ only as a catch phrase, will not care, so long as Android remains a good user experience.  As stated in our Two Bits reading, “Giving away the Communicator source code in 1998 endeared Netscape to geeks and confused investors; it was ignored by customers.”

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One thought on “Free and Proprietary Software: Google’s Balancing Act – by “Eric F”

  1. Hmmm, it looks like Google might have broken their “don’t be evil” rule. But, from Google’s perspective, this is understandable. They need to make money somehow to sustain their company, and if it wasn’t for them, Android wouldn’t have existed in the first place. I agree with the statement that mobile phone companies currently have their phones very locked-down. I believe that Verizon in particular has gotten heat for this, and being a Verizon customer, I have to say that it is true. I like the idea of Android, a more open platform, so I’m hoping that Google is able to increase its market share and introduce Android on many phones in the future.

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