There has been quite an uproar as of late over Google's handling of the source code for Honeycomb, their most recent version of Android. The company announced this week that it would be delaying the release of the Honeycomb source in order to iron out some issues, specifically ones involving running it on small-screen devices (i.e. phones). Andy Rubin gave an explanation as to why these issues exist:
Android 3.0, Honeycomb, was designed from the ground up for devices with larger screen sizes and improves on Android favorites such as widgets, multi-tasking, browsing, notifications and customization...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.
It's a safe bet that Google wanted to get the Xoom out, with Honeycomb, prior to the iPad2 release. As an unfortunate side effect of this pressure, Honeycomb ended up being not exactly phone-friendly (as anyone who tried the SDK port on their phone no doubt found out).
If you dealt with the Android community before, you probably know that compatibility issues hardly stop those intrepid developers who want to get a full version of Honeycomb running on phones, Nook Colors, basically anything it would boot up on. This is precisely what Google is trying to avoid by withholding the source until it is confirmed as ready for a wider range of devices. Again, Andy clarifies:
While we’re excited to offer these new features to Android tablets, we have more work to do before we can deliver them to other device types including phones... Until then, we’ve decided not to release Honeycomb to open source.
So maybe they aren't allowing homebrew developers to get moving onto the next custom ROM for the Xoom or a full blown Honeycomb version for the Nook Color, but members of the Open Handset Alliance have access to 3.0 in order to make and customize new Android tablets. Other manufacturers are also able to request access to the source from Google, as long as they aren't attempting to load it onto anything besides tablets. The move seems to indicate Google's desire to avoid tarnishing Android by having some second-rate device makers push out "Honeycomb phones" with more bugs than any other Android release to date.
While it may be a letdown for devs and Android hobbyists, for whom the attraction of Android is the ability to customize Google's already fantastic product, it does make sense to ensure that a product is ready for every use case before it is released to the public. The policy may be closer to that of a certain other billion dollar company, but Rubin has assured us that Google "[is] committed to providing Android as an open platform across many device types and will publish the source as soon as it’s ready."
Google holding back Honeycomb is a shock to the Android community, which takes pride in the fact that Android is open source, but there has been somewhat of an overreaction to this move in the tech news coverage. Many claims have been made that this signals that Android is soon to become "locked down," but I think they are blowing this tactical move, motivated by engineering necessities, way out of proportion.
For enthusiasts, including myself, it serves as an unsettling reminder that Google is willing to exert their control where necessary. With that in mind, let's not forget that Google is a company, Android is a brand that it owns, and it would be irresponsible of them to do something that harms the value of that brand in order to uphold a philosophy that a vast majority of their customers doesn't really care about. Just remember - this is a temporary stopgap, forced by rapid market conditions, and not a major change of direction.