Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Google's Android, and the Walled Gardens of the Mobile Web...

When Google recently announced its entry into the mobile phone market, many in the computer programming world were thrilled to hear that Google's new software platform, Android, would be based on the Linux kernel and released under an open-source license. However, skeptics who looked more closely noted that the specific license Google plans to use leaves some restrictions in place, drawing the ire of even the inventor of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee. So the question is whether this is a big hullabaloo about nothing, or a crucial intersection in the Web's development that will affect its architecture for decades to come?

Anybody with a cell phone has, at one time or another, been frustrated with its limited functionality. If I want to use my iTunes music library with my cell phone, I have to buy an iPhone and switch service to AT&T. As a computer programmer, if I have a brilliant idea for creating a cell phone application, I can't even write the code for it unless I'm either an employee or get explicit permission to do so. As this Wired article points out, "lockdowns on hardware functionality, demanded by service providers and enforced by the manufacturers, have resulted in a marketplace filled with crippled devices that are only minimally configurable or expandable". Certainly, innovation suffers and both the consumer and the mobile industry itself miss out on some serious Mobile Web opportunities.

Open-source software has always proven to be a breath of fresh air for industries stuck in a quagmire of innovation, which is why Google's announcement that its new software would be open-source was initially hailed by the computer programming world. However, the specific open-source license it will be using is the Apache variant, rather than the more open GPL which covers Linux and GNU software. This may seem like overly technical legal jargon to many, but the short summary of the distinction is that Google's decision to use the Apache license means that developers will be able to use and modify the code behind open-source software, yet they will not be required to re-release their modifications as open-source after the fact.

This raises quite the pickle. Inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has come out decidedly against "walled gardens" for the Mobile Web. "The 'walled garden' is the metaphor that describes today’s cable TV and cellular data networks, where subscribers can only use devices authorized by the carrier, and can only access content and services authorized by the carrier, the exact opposite of the World Wide Web running over the IP-based Internet".

Berners-Lee contrasts these developments in the mobile world with the success of the World Wide Web itself. "The Web is an open platform on which you build other things," he said. "That’s how you get this innovation. The Web is universal: you can run it on any hardware, on any operating system, it can be used by people of different languages".

Basically, the Internet has been such a huge success because it was based on completely open standards, and thus Berners-Lee is absolutely correct in stating that the Mobile Web should follow that model. Google's entry into the mobile market with Android is a step in the right direction (being open-source), yet its decision to adopt the Apache license leaves too many restrictions on software development still in place. While Google should be encouraged for its decision to go open-source, people should not become complacent and accept this as the future model to go by - because it is not completely in line with the Internet's true vision.

Is this all a big hullabaloo about nothing? The truth is that the overwhelming majority of people couldn't care less about distinctions between competing open-source software licenses, and as a result, this is sure to fly way under the popular radar. However, the consequences of how the Mobile Web develops will greatly affect everyone in the years to come.


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