Android – commercial meets open source

One of the interesting things about Google’s Android project is the mix of cultures.

There are a number of people like me, firmly grounded in the open source world, who are happy to get something that 1) works, 2) looks to have legs in terms of popularity, and 3) will be open source. Think of a lot of your favorite open source projects when they first launched. “Polished” isn’t a word you would probably use to describe them, although it usually happens in later releases (Ubuntu looks better and better, for example).

There are also a lot of people who come from a ‘commercial’ background, who expect to see everything ready and waiting on a plate for them, which isn’t a mistaken expectation if you’re used to using products from big companies who are staking their reputations on them. They want nice, thorough docs for everything, almost all bugs worked out, and lots of easy to use tools.

Android lies in a middle ground somewhere between these two camps, which I think at times makes people uneasy.

It’s not open source yet. You can’t hack it as much as you may want. You can’t rebuild it from the ground up. You don’t get access to the communication between the developers working on it, and cannot participate in that development. However, there is a promise to open source it that would reflect very, very poorly on Google were it not met and is therefore pretty credible. The developers and many people involved with it certainly seem to “get” open source, and are taking good steps to create a community around Android (a few even hang out in the #android IRC channel on Freenode) that will most likely not take too long to start assimilating interested outsiders once the code is open. In terms of quality, it wasn’t bad when it came out, but it was very definitely an “early look”, put out there to solicit feedback and change according to it, something that’s part and parcel of a release early, release often open source model.

On the other side, Android looks to be a big effort from a big company to get into a big market in a big way – it’s not a “under the radar” type of strategy that the open source world is often constrained to follow for lack of monetary and marketing resources to do it any other way. This has attracted a number of developers who either don’t see or don’t really get some of the “open source” aspects of what we have so far: it’s still changing! The docs aren’t complete! The emulator is still ugly in places! And from their point of view, it must seem odd to getting something that’s obviously not a finished product, without crystal clear direction and goals and a roadmap, and without actual hardware only available in the distant (well, in internet terms! – 8 months or so) future. That kind of thing probably isn’t done very often in their world, or where it’s done, is certainly kept quieter and perhaps restricted to registered developers. They came over to have a look at something that was ready to go, and it isn’t, yet. This has caused some disappointment for people who expected to see something ready to go out of the box.

Perhaps Google needed to manage their initial communications slightly better in order to manage the second group’s expectations more carefully. In terms of us open source folks, I think that what we want is more access, as soon as Google is willing to hand it out. More source code access, but also access to the development process and people. “Real” open source isn’t just about the code, it’s about being more or less equal participants in a community. Luckily, I think the people at Google get this, which is one of the reasons I’m enthusiastic about Android, even if I wish we didn’t have to wait so long for the source code.

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