Google, Acer, Redhat and the future of Open
September 19th, 2012 by ravi

Much has been said about Google’s alleged attempt to strong-arm Acer into dropping its plan to release an [[Aliyun OS]] based smartphone because Aliyun is an “incompatible” fork of Android. The general criticism that this is a bit of hypocrisy on Google’s part given how much they have been pitching Android as “open”.  Hypocrisy or not, there is certainly a paradox in Google’s position.

On the one hand, Google claims to make available an “an open platform available for carriers, OEMs, and developers to use to make their innovative ideas a reality”. They are clear that they mean “Open Source” when they say “open” (and they are explicit that they mean this in opposition to “free software”). Their goal is to “improve the mobile experience of users” and ensure that no “one industry player [can] control the innovations of any other” (the “one industry player” hinted at is of course Apple). Open as in Open Source improves user experience by letting all players innovate.

On the other hand, Google is worried about “fragmentation” and “incompatibility”. Too many  players “innovating” on the platform might raise myriad confusions for users (will my favourite app run on this version of Android?) thus diminishing, not improving, their experience. Google’s answer is to create and use an entity called the Open Handset Alliance which regulates all Android development to make sure they meet Google’s standards on proper use of Android code.

Google’s solution is an explicit acknowledgement that “open” needs to be constrained by one or a few industry players gatekeeping what counts as acceptable “innovation”. The problem of fragmentation is in fact worse for the user, who is confronted by an embarrassment of poorly differentiated [[overchoice]] and is forced to play the role of a poorly informed [[invisible hand]] not merely to pick the winner in the marketplace but also the winners in technology and design.

Google is right in bringing up Open vs Free, for the former is an apolitical conflation of “choice” and “freedom” while the latter is an explicitly political position based on a well-defined idea of “freedom”. Google being a corporation is not concerned with freedoms, and they echo the standard Open Source pose that the considerations are pragmatic (hence the disdain of Free Software and its sociopolitical ambitions) and there is good reason to believe that they are honest about that (notice that they are not open sourcing their search or advertising platforms). However, Open Source advocates should note that their anger at AliBaba contains an ethical element. Here is Andy Rubin, majordomo of mobile at Google:

[T]here’s really no disputing that Aliyun is based on the Android platform and takes advantage of all the hard work that’s gone into that platform by the OHA.

What irks Rubin is that AliBaba is taking all the hard work put into Android by Google without wanting to participate in and contribute to the effort. While he (and Google) couch the matter in pseudo-contractual terms, they really have no contractual/legalistic grounds against AliBaba/Aliyun since AliBaba is not a member of the Android collective at all. So Google did what they could do which was to use their influence and the OHA charter to crush the deal between Acer and Alibaba. Why? Not because Acer or Alibaba violated OHA principles (the latter is not part of the Android ecosystem and is hence not bound by the OHA strictures, and the former is not fragmenting Android). But because Aliyun is “tak[ing] advantage of … the hard work [of others]”.

Google’s ethical outrage at their hard work being taken advantage of can be redressed through the use of their market might. Open Source developers have no such recourse. Their apolitical stance commits and consigns them through and through to exploitation. At the same time their identification of freedom or liberty with the ability to fork code almost certainly leads them to fragmentation and poor user value. Both politically and pragmatically they are at a dead end. The way out lies in fully accepting that a GPL style copyleft license protects the community (even in oblique ways, as Red Hat is demonstrating with their lawsuit against patent troll Twin Peaks) and a philosophical commitment to the interests of the community (ironically well stated in Google/OHA’s web page) puts the product (and hence user value) at the centre rather than the willy-nilly liberty of individuals (developers) to do as they wish.


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