Google's Android Restrictions Are Not Evil, Just Business-As-Usual

Last Updated Apr 19, 2010 6:11 PM EDT

I've written a fair amount about how completely Apple (AAPL) controls the iPhone OS ecosystem. Yet according to mobile market analyst firm Vision Mobile, the (well-fortified) house Steve Jobs built is no more controlling than Google's (GOOG) tight grip over Android. I don't agree with Vision Mobile completely, but there's a lot of evidence to show that Google is trying to completely control the Android platform, rather than letting it be "open," as its PR stresses.

When you think about it for a minute, this isn't surprising. Control over Android is the only way Google will make money off the operating system and justify the company's investment in it.

Apple has gained considerable attention recently over its efforts to control third party iPhone and iPad developers. The company's actions largely seek to restrict developers from creating products for competing platforms -- especially Android. The more important control in iPhone and iPad branding, marketing, and business comes from Apple being a one-stop shop for both hardware and software. Buy an iPhone and Apple makes money.

Google's way of generating revenue is more indirect, but make no mistake that it also seeks control. Just because anyone can develop for Android doesn't make the operating system "open." As Vision Mobile notes, the openness ends with the hardware:

Whereas Android is completely open for the software developer ecosystem, it's completely closed for the handset OEM (pre-load) ecosystem. There is no other platform which is so asymmetrical in terms of its governance structures.
Vision Mobile means governance of the handset manufacturers, not the developers. Google uses a number of mechanisms to ensure control in the face of all the talk of Android being an open platform:
  • Handset vendors have to play ball if they want advance access to private code months before it finally enters a public release and if they want to remain in the loop through a rapid change versions.
  • Although Android is technically open source, only Google can authorize any change to the code and the company allows very few changes offered by people from outside the company.
  • Public versions of the code miss key aspects necessary to make the phone work as well as Google apps like Gmail.
  • A compliance testing program looks at such things as "performance testing, hardware features, device design, UI specs and bundled services." Basically, a handset vendor can add applications and features, but not remove any.
I take the analysis with a little salt. Vision Mobile claims that Google has exclusive distribution of Android apps through its marketplace, even though there are alternate marketplaces for Android applications and, unlike Apple, Google's Android developer agreement only looks for non-exclusive selling rights.

However, put that aside and give Vision Mobile the benefit of the doubt for a moment on how Google controls handset vendors. Even though Google PR emphasizes the "open" nature of Android, the company has locked down the operating system and what hardware vendors can do with it. Is that surprising? It shouldn't be, for two reasons.

From a marketing and brand perspective, Google -- like Apple or Microsoft (MSFT) or RIM (RIMM) -- wants a unified product on the market. If consumers can't count on what an Android phone is, they won't buy them and won't ask for them. That gets to the second reason that Google needs control: money. Handset vendors aren't paying per-unit royalties on Android. Instead, Google is following its fundamental business strategy to create products and services that people want, and then present ads to the customers. The ad business will generate the money, and to get that, Google has to ensure that ads will appear on all those Android-running cell phones. The future may bring a Google counterpart to Apple's iAd, or some other mobile commerce activity that will give Google a cut of transactions. No matter what the ultimate form, Google will want the feature to be on all its phones.

In other words, Android is not some feel-good software crusade. It is a business, and Google plans to make it pay -- and will insist on its business partners cooperating to make that possible.

Lock picture: user fishmonk, site standard license. Photo manipulation, Erik Sherman.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.