SAN JOSE, Calif. – Google is for an unspecified time limiting the release of Honeycomb, the tablet version of Android, a move frustrating many mobile systems makers who want to compete with the Apple iPad. Google's move highlights the difficulties of a broad open source movement like Android to compete with a vertically integrated manufacturer like Apple.
"Google refused to give out any information about Honeycomb, and the end result was no one could deviate from the reference design," said a senior engineer with a large mobile systems maker in Taiwan.
"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," said a Google spokesman.
"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," the spokesman said. "Until then, we’ve decided not to release Honeycomb to open source," he said.
"We’re committed to providing Android as an open platform across many device types and will publish the source as soon as it’s ready," he added.
Google was quick to jump on the tablet phenomenon with Honeycomb, enabling Motorola to release a tablet in less than a year after Apple defined the new market with its original iPad. However, it is clearly struggling to find the balance of how to enable a broad industry of mobile systems makers without losing control of the quality of its code and the systems that use it.
At an Android developer conference earlier this month, two Google developers showed Honeycomb running on the Motorola Xoom tablet released in February. At that time they said Google had not decided when it would release the source code for Honeycomb, and they said Google plans to release a separate version of the code optimized for smartphones.
"Honeycomb is all about the tablet, but along the way we made a lot of general improvements in the user interface," said Chet Haase, a Google UI developer who showed the software to an audience of more than 400 at the conference in San Mateo, Calif.
Acer, Dell, HTC and Samsung are expected to roll out tablets using Honeycomb soon. Some systems engineers expressed frustration that the other tablets will be me-too devices with little differentiation.
If Google releases versions of Android every nine months, systems makers won't be able to get a return on their investment in developing new Android devices and Google could fragment the Android market, said Mario Morales, a lead semiconductor analyst for International Data Corp.
Google has not said when it will release an open source version of Honeycomb, the version of Android 3.0 tailored for tablets. The company is concerned some handset makers might try to use the tablet software in smartphones, said Andy Rubin, vice-president for engineering at Google and head of its Android group in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.
Rubin told Businessweek that if Google were to open-source the Honeycomb code now, as it has with other versions of Android at similar periods in their development, it couldn't prevent developers from putting the software on phones "and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones," Rubin said.