Andreas Constantinou, as I have previously stated, is the smartest guy in mobile computing. This week he is tackling Android and pondering whether the disruptive Linux-based OS meets its parent company’s famous assertion that it will “not be evil“. (To be fair, the official company stance is that it is possible to make money without doing evil—that may be the heart of the argument outlined below.)

This is a hot topic in the Linux community. At the combined Embedded Linux Conference and Linux Collaboration Summit this past week, Greg Kroah-Hartmann explained his well-considered decision to remove Google-specific code from the upstream kernel, while simultaneously praising Android and inviting Google to sit down and hash out the technical issues (which they are doing now).

But – is Google’s relative non-openness regarding Android actually evil? Andreas questions this as well. As I stated in the comments on his blog, I have learned an enormous amount about the mobile industry by reading the VisionMobile blog for the past four years, much more than I learned in three years in the trenches working at a major mobile software manufacturer. This is a very complex subject and I think Andreas is better equipped than most to see the details—and, further, to explain them to the rest of us.

That being said, I wonder if there is a big-picture issue that is being missed in the discussion. I’ll use Andreas’ title to make a devils-advocate assertion:

Although open is defined as not evil,
Not being completely open is not necessarily evil

Openness is a spectrum, and not all parts of a given product have to be open in order for it to be beneficial to an industry as a whole. It depends on the industry, and it also depends on the beneficiary. Private branches, private roadmaps, and even a gated developer community are not “evil” if the end result is a net gain for the majority of participants. I believe this is partly what Google means by their famous and much-quoted statement, although mostly what they mean is that they don’t intend to do evil things with advertising. Google has hubris to spare, but at least in this case they are using it to the benefit of others. Maybe not completely, but enough.

Apple turned the US cellular market on its ear when the iPhone came out, and rightly so – it was long overdue for a revolution. But it did so out of narcissism, to benefit Apple. Google is taking the whole issue one step further by opening the model up at various points, to the benefit of consumers, app developers, and handset manufacturers. This is to the possible detriment of carriers as they are now, but it hastens their eventual evolution into dumb pipes (which IMO they should have been all along).

Is it ALL to the benefit of everyone? No. Does it have to be in order to not be “evil”? In my opinion, no. And I’m saying that as a serious open-source advocate. I say this not so much a begrudging acceptance of Google’s need to monetize as a realistic assessment of the situation. We all benefit from Android’s disruption whether or not it is completely open.

Actually, AFAIK the Goog never claimed to be always “open”. The relative openness of various components of the system is not as important as the disruptiveness of the whole. As an aside, I personally hope that they work out their issues with the Linux kernel maintainers, but even if they don’t they still will have helped change an entire industry for the benefit of both app developers and consumers, and that is a very non-evil thing to do.