Google, Android, and the case of the missing communication

Like many people, I participated in the Google Android contest this spring, and like most of them, I didn’t win, but I did enjoy working with the platform, and am very excited about the idea of an open source mobile platform that’s relatively powerful.

From the outset, due to the lack of actual source code for a lot of the system, there have been “doubters” about what Google is really up to. I’m not one of them, and am largely ok with their reasons for holding back: I buy their reasoning that the long term benefits of a strong, properly QA’ed launch probably outweigh the possibility of failure that might come from the press and the public at large that doesn’t care much about software freedom seeing phones come out with half-baked, early implementations. I think most of us working with Android were ok with that strategy, and the ones who weren’t self-selected out of the platform, most likely.

However, lately Google has made something of a mess of their communications regarding Android. The problem stems from the fact that they gave an updated version of the SDK only to the winners of the competition, which for a lot of people felt like a bit of a slap in the face: they helped popularize the platform by participating in the contest and writing applications for it, and in return got excluded from the upgrade path. Personally, it’s not really any skin off my nose, as I’m sanguine about the Hecl port proceeding apace when the new SDK is public, but I can see that if you were, say, a company porting your app to the platform and now are left behind the competition winners, you might be a bit irritated.

The biggest mistake they’ve made though, is a big lack of communication regarding this business. As I said, I don’t really have that much skin in the game, and if they explained in a convincing way why they needed to do things that way, they would go a long ways to allaying the frustrations felt by many.

I’m not much of a believer in conspiracy theories and plots, especially where companies are concerned. Inept bumbling is a far more likely explanation in most cases, including this one. What is odd, though, is that Google has a lot of people who “get it”. I met Dan Morrill at the Munich Android event, and he definitely gets it. He writes about his frustrations as a developer advocate and all the crazy things people say. Well, one way to reduce the number of batty internet theories (eliminating them is clearly impossible due to the alien mind control rays) is to consistently communicate quality information about what’s really going on, something that has been lacking with regards to the SDK question. Here’s another Google employee who understands this need to communicate, and apparently does so despite being worried about being “slapped for talking publicy about all this”:

http://groups.google.com/group/android-developers/msg/244edfad99870c63

But the root of the problem is certainly not licensing but that there hasn’t
been a new public SDK release
since M5, while at the same time a small group of people received updated
versions privately.

I really don’t know precisely why this happened; but I’m sure it has more to
do with logistics and reducing
the burden of support while we shift priorities (to shipping real devices)
rather than politics or any will of our
part to “hurt the community” (come one guys, we are not that stupid… !)

While others in the team may disagree, I think it was very very unfortunate;
some of us are trying to
prepare a new SDK release, but it’s a lot harder than I can comment on here,
so don’t hold your breath
because it might not happen that soon.

This explains things in part, but still leaves us in the dark, and leaves me with the feeling that someone in power, somewhere at Google, despite his or her clued in colleagues, really doesn’t get it with regards to open source.

I’m still unconcerned about the Android source code: I think we’ll see it, but to be a true open source project, Android will need an open community as well, not one where decisions are taken exclusively at Google, and not even communicated to the development community at large. All in all, this mistake is more molehill than mountain, but however you look at it, in terms of open source, it is a step backwards.

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