Last summer, in a private email message, the open source and compatibility program manager for Google's Android mobile operating system told a colleague that Google uses Android compatibility as a "club" to make phone makers "do what we want".
As reported by The New York Times, the email was turned up as part of the lawsuit brought against Google by Skyhook Wireless, the Boston-based outfit that pioneered the art of pinpointing a mobile device's location based on Wi-Fi and cell-tower signals. Filed this past September, Skyhook's suit accuses Google of using Android to strong-arm handset makers into choosing Google's location technology rather than Skyhook's.
In April 2010, Motorola and Samsung agreed to use Skyhook's location services, but in July, both companies dropped Skyhook in favor of Google's competing services. In its suit, Skyhook claims that Google Android boss Andy Rubin told Motorola co-CEO Sanjay Jha that if Motorola didn't drop Skyhook from its Android phones, Google would remove official Android support from the handsets. Without official support, Motorola could not use the Android trademark or proprietary Google services such as the Android Market or Google Maps. Although Google bills Android as an "open" platform, Skyhook's suit argues, the company retains tight control over how it is used.
Google requires Android handset makers to meet certain "compatibility" requirements designed to limit fragmentation of the Android market. According to the Skyhook suit, Google used these requirements as an excuse to force Skyhook off handsets. In another email turned up by the case, from June 2, 2010, a Motorola executive told Skyhook that Skyhook's location technology “renders the device no longer Android Compatible”. Google has called Skyhook's suit "baseless".
Last week, a judge denied a Google effort to have Skyhook's case dismissed, and along with the judge's order, the court released various Google emails from the case. In one of these emails, from August 6, 2010, Dan Morrill – Google's open source and compatibility program manager – says in passing that phone makers are well-aware that "we are using compatibility as a club to make them do things we want".
Skyhook's suit accuses Google of "unfair and intentional interference with its contractual and business relations", claiming Google cost it "in excess of tens of millions of dollars". Morrill's email may or may not support Skyhook's case. But at the very least, the email exposes – yet again – Google's amusingly meaningless use of the word "open", a habit it shares with tech companies across the industry.
In April 2010, the same month Skyhook signed its deal with Motorola, Dan Morrill published a blog post that took aim at Steve Jobs for banning iPhone applications that had been translated from Adobe Flash and other development languages not expressly approved by Apple. "Openness is more than the absence of closed. Openness does not come automatically just because you deploy an industry standard," Morrill said.
"Openness means you recognize the real, additive value that disparate products and businesses bring to your platform. It doesn't mean tolerating competition, it means valuing competition. You only really value openness when you quietly thank your higher power of choice that your competitor just took advantage of the opportunity to destroy your business on your own platform."
Morrill concluded with a direct swipe at Apple's famous boss. "Steve Jobs, you fail at open," he said.
Morrill's characterization of Android compatibility as a "club" wielded against phone makers is just a single comment, made in passing. But it doesn't exactly jibe with his own definition of openness. We're reminded of Google's Android boss Andy Rubin sparring with Steve Jobs. After Jobs called Google's open claims "disingenuous", Rubin released his first ever Tweet:
the definition of open: "mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git://android.git.kernel.org/platform/manifest.git ; repo sync ; make"
Translation: Open means you can use a command line to create a directory, download the Android source code, and build your own OS. But just weeks later, Google acknowledged that although the first Android Honeycomb tablets had hit the market, it would not release the Honeycomb source code for the foreseeable future.
Many have defended Google for keeping the Honeycomb code closed, reiterating Google's claim that this tablet-centric version of the OS is not yet ready for phones, and they've defended Google for keeping tight control over its Android partners. But the point that's missed here is that Google has been so self-righteous in its constant claims that Android is open. This is supposedly the pillar on which Android is built, the marketing message that Google has pushed so strongly in an attempt to win the goodwill of developers.
If Dan Morrill hadn't attacked Steve Jobs with such extreme language, if he hadn't implied that Google is the sort of company that thanks God when a competitor tries to use Android to destroy Android, his "club" email might read very differently. ®