bounding brokenness

Openness and reputation

So it’s old news now, but Google has decided to withhold Android 3.0’s source code for the next few months. Why? Because according to Andy Rubin, head of the Android group, the software isn’t ready for phones yet, and Google couldn’t prevent developers from putting the software on them “and creating a really bad user experience.” Google’s solution is to shut off public access to the source code entirely. As expected, the company has been roundly criticized for this decision.

It is worth recognizing that the problem does exist: I personally know people who bought cheap Android phones with terrible UX, and have now sworn off Android for the rest of their lives. The first Android tablets tried to shoehorn the phone UI into the tablet form factor, and were worse off for it. Android’s brand value has clearly been diluted by such devices, and Rubin is now in damage control mode.

However, he’s going entirely the wrong way about it. The root of the problem is not how open the source code is – it’s to do with how liberally the Android trademark is licensed.

In a recent post, Gerv mentioned some of the issues with community-equal trademarks. It turns out that the problem is more general: it happens even if trademarks aren’t community-equal but also aren’t sufficiently protected. Even though Android has a compatibility program in place, if one goes by Rubin’s words it apparently isn’t powerful enough to prevent companies from releasing devices with bad UX and calling them Android devices. (Either that or Android’s openness really is a “marketing gimmick”, as the Ars Technica article says.) If Google had sufficient control over its trademark, it could have released the source to Android 3.0, and then put its foot down and said “no Android 3.0 phones, full stop”.

On the other hand, Mozilla, as a truly open organization, recognized this problem long ago and restricted its trademarks from the beginning. Despite blowback from Linux vendors, Mozilla hasn’t relented much. The philosophy is simple: you have a right to our code, but you don’t have a right to our reputation, and in a capitalist world, your trademarks are your reputation. And the philosophy has worked.

I think there’s a lesson here for open source projects: Your trademarks define you in the marketplace, and are your own responsibility. Protecting your trademarks is the right thing to do. For consumer-facing software, it is the moral thing to do. Android didn’t, and now has to compromise on its openness to fix its problems.

(Obligatory disclaimer: these views are my own.)