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Why I’m not a fan of Google’s cease-and-desist letter to Cyanogen

Those of you who follow my blog or are Ubuntu Forums members may know that I often come to the defense of Google. There is a lot of Google-bashing out there. It seems to now be the cool thing to do. I almost laughed out loud when there were blog posts framing the Apple rejection of the Google Voice app as “David and Goliath” with Google being the Goliath!

I generally like Google because Google generally favors open source and open standards, and even does quite a bit of funding for open source. They have not, in the past, engaged in any of the vendor lock-in practices that Microsoft and Apple have. It is annoying if you have a Hotmail account and can’t use a regular email client like Thunderbird with it. It’s annoying if you can’t install a Google Voice app because Apple tells you what can and cannot be installed on your iPhone (and, unlike in Android, the iPhone doesn’t have an override option to say “I understand the risks of installing this third-party unapproved app but just want to do it anyway”).

I have a rooted Android phone. The term rooted in this case is a bit misleading. It isn’t a regular Android installation that has somehow been modified to allow me root access (so I can install apps like wifi tethering). It actually is a special rooted Android ROM I had to replace my regular Android installation with.

The folks who make these ROMs are volunteers who just want to make the most of what Google has advertised as an open platform. One of the most famous is a developer who goes by the nickname Cyanogen. I tried a few ROMS and Cyanogen’s was definitely the best.

He thought he was being careful. He thought (I’m paraphrasing here), “Well, I’ve modified the open source components of Android. The Google proprietary binaries (YouTube app, Google Maps app, GMail app, etc.) I haven’t modified. I’m redistributing these only to people who already have Google-branded phones. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Well, apparently, he was wrong. Google thought it was a big problem, despite the fact that only a few tens of thousands of people were using Cyanogen’s ROM. Google sent him a cease-and-desist letter, claiming he did not have the right to redistribute Google’s proprietary apps in a modified ROM.

Is Google within its legal right to do this? Certainly.

Is this a good idea for Google to do this? Absolutely not. Here are the reasons why:

  • If you look at the billions of people in the world and the millions of Android phone users, only a comparatively small number of people were using Cyanogen’s ROM. This cease-and-desist letter actually brings only more publicity to ROMs (which will continue to exist but now will have to go underground).
  • Google is pissing off the very people who have been the most vocal proponents of Android. These are people who can not only help develop the platform software-wise but can advocate for friends and family to buy Android phones in lieu of iPhones or Blackberries.
  • Even though what Cyanogen was doing may have been legally wrong, it was morally right. He was not stealing money from Google or hurting Google’s business model. Google does sell those “free” apps to phone manufacturers. But Cyanogen was creating the mod specifically for phones that had regular Google Android on them anyway.
  • The real clincher for me is the fact that Google Android has been touted by Google as open source. Yes, technically the OS itself (which is based on a Linux kernel) is open source, but Cyanogen and some other ROM developers have pointed out that the way Android is, it’s basically useless without the core apps (Android Market, Google Contacts syncing, etc.).

My hope is that, for Google PR’s sake, Google undertakes the following follow-up actions:

  • Offer Cyanogen a job working for Google Android
  • Work on releasing a barebones Android framework that is completely open source but also at least basically functional.
  • Provide a way for Android users to actually root their phones without replacing the standard OS with a custom ROM. The wifi tethering app, for example, is hosted by Google. Well, what good is the wifi tethering app from Google if it can’t be used? What good is an “open source” operating system if it requires proprietary components to function?

I haven’t completely turned against Google. I do think they’re still doing a lot of good work, and they’re still more open than Microsoft and Apple. Nevertheless, this incident has left a sour taste in my mouth, and I can’t really enthusiastically recommend Android phones to people now. I like Android still personally. But it no longer has the same open source appeal it used to. So if a friend or family member asks if she should get an iPhone, I’m just going to have to say “Why not?”