Google is often seen as the good guy of the big corporations operating in the world today. Its informal motto is “Don’t be evil” after all. Without shouting conspiracy at the top of my lungs, a recent article by Ron Amadeo on Arstechnica brings to light just how Google is starting to close the source so to say, on its Android platform, and perhaps its behaviour could be seen as less “Don’t be evil” and more that of the schoolyard bully.
When Android was first brought to market, the mobile landscape had different textures. iPhone was on its way to dominating the market and Google had to make a play to even the odds. Its decision was to launch the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), and use it as a means to getting Google services into the hands of mobile users.
As Amadeo notes, Android was effectively born out of a fear that Google Search would be locked out of the iPhone, and perhaps spiral into people using it less on desktop too.
However, the times they have changed. Android now owns almost 80% of the smartphone market, and Google has no need for the fears of yesteryear.
A common misperception is that Android and Google are the same thing, which is not the case. As Android is open source, it is not “owned” by anyone, and its code can be cloned or forked to create another version of the operating system — all compatible with the millions of apps available on Android. In reality, someone could make a non-Google OS chock-full of apps in a day. Android owning 80% of the market does not equal Google owning 80% of the market.
Google knows this, and is securing its future by ensuring that no one makes a viable alternative of Android.
It boils down to one thing really — Google is bringing more closed source into Android.
Amadeo states that what effectively makes up “Android” falls into two categories: “the open parts from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), which are the foundation of Android, and the closed source parts, which are all the Google-branded apps.”
Google is never entirely going to close Android — it is far too late for that move — but what Google can do (and is doing) is gain control over the platform by bringing more apps and services under the second category — the closed source Google-branded apps.
The closed source Google apps are familiar to most: Gmail, Maps, Talk, YouTube, Hangouts, Play Store, Google Now.
In the early years of Android, there was effectively an AOSP equivalent to these services — perhaps you bought a Samsung device and saw two email apps on your phone, one Gmail and one email, or two maps, etc. — but as soon as Google released a proprietary version, they ceased all work (read: development, support) on the AOSP version. So as Amadeo notes, “any time Google rebrands an app or releases a new piece of Android onto the Play Store, it’s a sign that the source has been closed and the AOSP version is dead.”
Google has effectively done this in one manner or another to these services:
- Keyboard (added to Play Store, and rebranded “Google Keyboard”)
Amadeo notes that it might even be doing this to the SMS/text messaging app once Hangouts is incorporated.
Google has a hold on manufacturers too. Google apps need to be licensed (as a bundle) by manufacturers who want these apps on their devices. So any manufacturer who wants Gmail, Maps, Google Now, Hangouts, YouTube, Play Store et al needs to be a member of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) — a group of companies who are “committed” to Android, and are contractually unable to build a device that runs a competing Android fork. Any company that breaks this and tries to create a competing device will have to shut its efforts down or lose access to Google apps.
The only company that has had the courage, and infrastructure, to attempt this is Amazon with the Kindle Fire. However, because of this Amazon cannot get the Fire made by an OEM which is a member of the OHA, such as Samsung, LG, Sony, Acer, Toshiba etc.
Trying to operate outside of the Google ecosystem is too much trouble for manufacturers (and developers for that matter), and Google is banking on the fact that most won’t risk it. At this stage of the game only Amazon is placed to take some of the smartphone marketshare, but the odds are stacked up high for the company, unless it starts to make its own hardware.