As Google Takes On the iPhone, True Openness — and Developers — Are Key

Google’s (s Goog) Nexus One phone has a lot going for it, although it isn’t an iPhone killer just yet. In the meantime, however, questions are emerging as to whether or not Google is going to be truly open with its Android OS strategy. Yesterday, on a videocast, Chris DiBona, Google’s influential open source program manager, provided some insight into the company’s approach.

On an episode of the weekly “CrankyGeeks” videocast that I was on, we asked DiBona whether when it comes to the Nexus One, Google is maintaining a level playing field with other phone competitors, particularly regarding its Android OS strategy. (GigaOm Pro, subscription req’d.)

To clarify, the Nexus One phone runs version 2.1 of Android, and DiBona confirmed that it’s currently the only phone to do so. That fact has given rise to many reports that Motorola (s MOT), for one, is angry that the Droid phone runs the older version 2.0 of Android. We asked DiBona if the move is similar to Microsoft (s MSFT) delivering one version of Windows to HP (s HP), and another to Dell (s Dell). We also asked him whether developers really want to build applications for multiple versions of Android. He responded:

“In defense of the platform, [Android] 2.1 is going to be available to everybody. It’s going to be open-sourced as well. [The Nexus One] is the first phone shipping with 2.1. We gave Motorola a huge heads-up. Motorola has been in this business for a long time. The versions are really close. The differences between them are live wallpaper, a couple of other small features, and a couple of small apps. Those are all getting sent to the Droid.”

As to what he thinks would happen if Microsoft delivered different versions of Windows to HP and Dell, “Microsoft has a certain level of monopoly power that we don’t,” DiBona said. “We were very much the underdog in operating systems. HTC can ship Android with their Sense UI. Some Samsung phones have their own flavor of the UI. This can be a little hard on developers sometimes, and they have to adapt.”

It’s crucial that going forward Google preserves a level playing field with Android, hardware manufacturers and developers–some of whom are already miffed that there isn’t an SDK for the new version of Android. (It’s also crucial that it does so with its new web store.) My sense is that Google is mostly going to do that, but the key word is mostly. I don’t doubt that the latest and greatest versions of Android will appear on Google’s phones first — and many people in the open source community will cry foul about that — but I also clearly heard DiBona maintain that Google is very focused on developers.

He noted that Google has to have a certain number of phones out in the field to really swing a big stick with the developer community, saying, “This is going to sound really cynical, but the thing that matters is how many Android phones we ship. There is a linear relationship between the number of phones we ship and the number of developers we get. We have about a fifteenth of the penetration of the iPhone, and about a tenth of the apps.”

In asking a couple of other Nexus One-related questions of DiBona, I mentioned that the phone seems to have extremely good battery life, to which he said he thinks the Droid’s is actually longer. I also asked him about widespread criticism of the fact that Google’s phone allows only 190MB of its local storage to store apps.

He said the solution is to store apps on an SD card, but he also noted that Apple doesn’t have app-related advantages over the Nexus One in every single department. “[Apple has] an advantage in the apps department, except for apps that run in the background,” he said. “I can start Pandora on [the Nexus One] and run it in the background. I can start all the location apps, and they run in the background.”

You can watch the whole discussion on the phone here (it’s the first 5-minute segment in the videocast).