Google's 'open platform': How open is Android, really?

The secret's out: Google's "open platform" Android operating system is probably not as open as we thought.

An open platform software system allows outside entities, such as vendors, to shape and change software features and functions as they see fit. The changes can be in the form of commercial add-ons or open-sourced materials. Until recently, Google's public believed that Android manufacturers were free to manipulate the Android operating system as they wished. Granted, Android continued to remind consumers who visited its website that "Google engineered Android, and Google's own apps run best on it." Nevertheless, the supposed freedom was there.

The arrangement seemed fair enough: Yes, Google knows best. But yes, manufacturers are free to alter Android products if they want to. Except now, we're finding out that's not exactly true.

Dirty secrets revealed in a court room

The revelation that Google may have manipulated Android manufacturers with their requirements came about during a court battle between the famed internet servicing company and Oracle. The corporations initially met before a judge to hash out patent and copyright issues, but in the midst of their legal battle, documents containing sensitive information implicating Google's dishonesty slipped into the public's hands.

Image via Flickr by GillyBerlin

Summary of Mobile Application Distribution Agreement (MADA) documents

A summary of the requirements Google put on both Samsung and HTC manufacturers between 2011-2012 was posted by Harvard Business Professor Ben Edelman on his blog. The formerly secretive arrangements are known as the "Mobile Application Distribution Agreement (MADA) Documents."

Edelman read the original court transcripts and gleaned his information from them; four major tenets follow below:

  • The Google search bar tool must be in the default setting for all Android smartphones.
  • All required Google apps must be installed before a customer purchases an Android phone. If all apps aren't installed on a phone, the manufacturer can't sell the phone.
  • Play Store and Google Search must be located next to the Home screen.
  • Other Google apps must be situated no more than one screen away from the Home screen.

While Google certainly has the freedom to package their product however they wish, critics insist that the company deceived the public when they said their Android product existed on an open platform. Since Android devices are the most widely used devices in the world, a true open platform design is essential to diversifying the applications used in the world’s mobile devices.

Device makers exempt from requirements

Interestingly, not all sellers of Android were bound, in 2011-2012, by the MADA documents. Those companies who make Android-supporting devices, such as Amazon with its Kindle Fire, have never been required to follow the strict app rules.

Will the public still trust Google to be honest and consumer-friendly, or will people now get suspicious that America's sweetheart might be a bit shady?

Devices like the Fire can support Android without shoving Google Play and other apps into the faces of consumers, according to the Wall Street Journal. Apparently some, but not all, sellers of Android were asked to abide by MADA agreements.

What this revelation means for consumers

Most consumers will have one of two responses to the Google reveal. Either they'll shrug their shoulders and say "Who cares? Google can do what they want," or they'll get miffed at the company's controlling behaviour and/or at the possibility that they've missed out on some great Android experiences because of the restrictions.

Because all people do not subscribe to the same "open platform" definition, the issue falls into a grey area. But an important question arises: Will the public still trust Google to be honest and consumer-friendly, or will people now get suspicious that America's sweetheart tech firm might be a bit shady?

Two major discoveries resulted from the incident. We now know that the definition of "open platform" is up for debate. While much of the world viewed "open platform" one way, Google viewed it another way. It's time for some discussions which will hopefully lead to a consensus on an "open platform" definition.

We also know that the integrity of all-powerful Google, with whom America has a love-hate (but mostly love) relationship, has been questioned. Some consumers will turn away from Google Android in disgust because of the incident. Some will continue to support the product, albeit with a more jaded point of view. Others won't care; they'll recognise Google Android as a strong product and raise a toast to the pursuit of business freedom in America.

What are your thoughts?

Top image via Flickr by Janitors

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