Sticky, Sweet, And Gooey: Google Delays Open-Sourcing Honeycomb

Only a few months ago, Honeycomb (Android 3.0) was a much-hyped fundamental improvement over previous Android releases like FroYo or Gingerbread. Thus far it's been mostly sizzle, rather than steak. Reviews of Motorola's Xoom often discuss persistent software bugs that are almost certainly caused by the half-baked Honeycomb rather than by the Xoom's hardware. This is a significant development for Android; the problems of previous iterations have generally been papered over by enthusiasm for the OS and the promise of upcoming superior flavors.

Google's response, at least for now, has been to keep Honeycomb closed-source.     This won't affect the heavy hitters, companies like Samsung, Motorola, and HTC already have Honeycomb in hand. Smaller developers or app programmers, however, are stuck in the cold. Google's VP of engineering, Andy Rubin, indicates this was a conscious decision. "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 goes on to say that if Google released Honeycomb in its current condition, it could do nothing to prevent  companies from building products around the OS. The fear is that these various companies would create a lousy UI experience and therefore turn customers away from Android in the future. His comment that "We have no idea if it [Honeycomb] will even work on phones" is disingenuous at best.

It's gorgeous, Xoom-y, and unhappily buggy.

Free software advocates maintain that Google is making a mistake by not releasing Honeycomb to the public. "It's usually a mistake," said Eben Moglen, founding director of Software Freedom Law Center. "Long experience teaches people that exposing the code to the community helps more than it hurts you." To be fair to Google, however, it's not individuals, interested parties, or university programs the company is concerned with. The real issue here could be the fourth-rate counterfeit products the pour out of China, often with little to no Q&A testing.

Google maintains that the Android team is already "hard at work looking at what it takes to get this running on other devices." Honeycomb includes tablet-friendly features like improved multi-touch support and better multi-tasking / web browsing. At this point, Google seems unlikely to release an open-source version of Honeycomb down the line; there are already rumors that Honeycomb's successor, Ice Cream Sandwich, will be closed source as well. It's rumored that Google will return to open source flavors three versions down the road, presumably when it's had time to harden the OS and improve the underlying UI.