Google Plays “Hide the Honeycomb”

Google Plays "Hide the Honeycomb"

I am not a developer or a computer science person, so everything beyond the basic user experience is sort of like magic to me. But even as a former philosophy major, I know there’s a huge number of people out there who spend unpaid hours digging through Android’s guts to provide more services and software to the average user. And that much of that is thanks to Google being committed to open source and sharing Android with the world. Or it was…

According to BusinessWeek, Google is holding back from sharing the full source code for Honeycomb with everyone who wants it. Apparently, Google is very concerned about Honeycomb being used on phones and other devices that can’t support it, and presumably then creating negative publicity and feedback for their new flagship OS.

From the article:

In the past, Google has given device makers early access to versions of Android so they could work on their products. It would then typically release the source code to the masses a few months later, letting all comers do what they want with the code. HTC, Samsung Electronics, Motorola Mobility Holdings, and other big manufacturers already have access to Honeycomb.

It’s the throngs of smaller hardware makers and software developers that will now have to wait for the software. The delay will probably be several months. “To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs,” says Andy Rubin, vice-president for engineering at Google and head of its Android group. “We didn’t want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut.”

Rubin says that if Google were to open-source the Honeycomb code now, as it has with other versions of Android at similar periods in their development, it couldn’t prevent developers from putting the software on phones “and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones.”

“Android is an open-source project,” he adds. “We have not changed our strategy.”

If I had to put my “cynic” hat on for one moment, this reads less about polishing Honeycomb and more about it running on non-Google blessed hardware. Google has really bet big time on Honeycomb being Android’s tablet savior, and this may be their way of protecting the big tablet makers from being chewed at the ankles by a cheap flood of knockoff products. The number one complaint seems to be that Android tablets are overpriced versus the iPad, but imagine how much harder Samsung, Moto and HTC are going to have to work to sell devices if your local CVS is selling a Honeycomb tablet for $99?

And speaking of those $99 tablets, they’re quite the mixed bag. Some “budget” tablets turn out ok, and some of them are really and truly awful. Unfortunately, all of them can and do market themselves as “Android tablets” and there’s nothing Google can do to stop them. Except keep all those manufacturers from grabbing Honeycomb and diluting the brand name.

I can see both sides to this. On the one hand, Google is still very permissive with Android, far more than Apple and Microsoft, and they need to make business decisions that further Android on the best business terms possible. On the other hand, I’ll fully admit that I love the developer community and the magic they seem to create out of thin air. As a user of said wizardry, I don’t want to see it go away…but I think this is definitely a case of wait and see. It could mean Google is battening down the hatches, it could mean they wanted to give the OS more time to percolate, or it could be some combination of issues…only time will tell!


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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

1 Comment on "Google Plays “Hide the Honeycomb”"

  1. Thomas R. Hall | March 25, 2011 at 7:30 pm |

    While this was upsetting to me at first, I had to think about it from Google’s standpoint. They are working furiously on squashing the last remaining bugs in their OS, but Motorola released their hardware early, in order to beat the iPad 2 to market. And it shows. That device is buggy. Not the best first impression of the OS! As they finish the code and allow their hardware partners to test it on their hardware, they still will be working through issues.

    If they released the source code now, it has a negative impact on their hardware partners. Third-party teams like Cyanogenmod will release builds for existing tablets. Some users may choose to use those devices instead of buying new tablets. This could happen before the release of the actual Honeycomb tablets.

    Since Google said they had to cut corners, they don’t want anyone looking “under the covers” until they have cleaned things up. Otherwise, developers could be trying to submit patches or fixes to the code.

    The approach Google uses even for their normal development streams for older Android releases is similar. They develop on a private branch and when it is in decent shape, then they push that to the public repository. All they are doing (in my mind) in this case is telling developers they are not closing the source, but are just holding it longer than they normally would. This prevents developers from worrying about some sort of change in policy or direction.

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