Google’s (Partial) Retreat from Open Systems

Google’s “open source” promises regarding its Android mobile operating system have always been a bit exaggerated. Yes, anyone can download and use that software, but to get Google’s official stamp of approval for using it in a mobile device, you have to add in some distinctly proprietary applications that Google alone controls.

Now comes the word, via BusinessWeek, that Google is delaying plans to open-source the OS — built on top of Android (itself a Linux variant) and called Honeycomb — that it wants tablet makers to use. The decision is disturbing for many reasons, but here’s the most important one: It erodes trust.

Google seems to be playing favorites in the rollout of Honeycomb tablets. It’s currently partnering with a relatively small number of manufacturers, such as Motorola, that are bringing out the first of what Google hopes will be many tablets in the next several years.

But the main reason to be excited Honeycomb, from my perspective, is that the OS will be widely in play in a number of form factors and devices by a wide variety of manufacturers. They need the code to experiment with all kinds of ideas, and they aren’t getting it in a timely way.

Google is still leagues ahead of other big tech companies in the openness arena. But people who want to believe in the company should remember that Google is, first and foremost, going to protect itself.

If the Honeycomb code release occurs soon, the impact of the delay will be minimal. No matter when it takes place, however, Google has cost itself a bit of the trust it’s earned in recent years — and that seems like a poor bargain for a company that in the end will live or die based on its users’ trust.