What Is The One True Android & How “Open” Is It?

Ironically on iPhone 5 day, Google finds itself about to be embroiled in a fresh debate over how much it controls “open” Android as well as what Android actually is. It’s well past time for “Android” to mean the mobile operating system that Google largely controls while some other name is found for the entirely […]

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Ironically on iPhone 5 day, Google finds itself about to be embroiled in a fresh debate over how much it controls “open” Android as well as what Android actually is. It’s well past time for “Android” to mean the mobile operating system that Google largely controls while some other name is found for the entirely separate open source mobile OS project that Google supports.

Android’s “Open” Origins

When the Android mobile OS project launched at the end of 2007, the idea was that Google wasn’t pushing it just for its own purposes. That’s part of the reason why Android was made, in my opinion, open source, free for anyone to use.

Companies that want to challenge incumbents often reach for the “open” title to sound better. Microsoft and Yahoo did it with Google over book search with the Open Content Alliance. Making Android “open” gave Google a similar generous sounding angle.

Another “open” angle was rounding up so many other companies to be part of the Open Handset Alliance that was announced along with Android. If you’re going to take on Apple (which Google was doing at the time), it’s nice to have some company. And there was plenty of company, such as handset makers feeling squeezed out of the phone market by Apple.

It wasn’t all PR, of course. There are very good people at Google who honestly do believe in open source projects and work hard at them. Having an alliance of companies involved in a mobile OS project also makes good sense.

Chilling Effects

A funny thing happened to the openness of Android as years have passed. It started to feel less open.

I’d say the first major chilling effect is what’s still going through the court system, the idea that Google worked to prevent handset makers from using Skyhook’s location database in preference to its own, with “compatibility” one of the issues.

It’s hard not to feel for Skyhook describing its situation during a panel discussion held yesterday. The panel was staged by Microsoft-backed, anti-Google group FairSearch. I have serious issues with the false statement the Microsoft speaker made (and recanted when challenged) about Google search being required on Android phones.

But the Skyhook situation has always seemed a serious concern worth more investigation. You can watch yourself at about 15 minutes in:

Also see our other article, Acer, Skyhook And Google’s Android Self-Interest, more more about the Skyhook case.

The second major chilling effect came this week. Acer was going to announce it was working with Alibaba to produce a phone using Alibaba’s Aliyun operating system. Then the press event was abruptly canceled.

Why? Acer is part of the Open Handset Alliance, and in short, it should only be working on “real” Android rather than “fake” Android. If it wanted to go the fake route, it would have to leave the OHA and give up benefits that come with that, including close ties with Google.

Our separate story, Google: Acer Can’t Work On “Non-Compatible Android” & Be Part Of Open Handset Alliance, explains more about this.

“Fake” Android

Google doesn’t use the terms “real” and “fake” to describe the two major branches of Android. Instead, Google talks about Android interchangeably to mean either of them or both of them combined. That needs to stop. At the same time, the whole idea that Android is “open” for anyone to use should also go away.

Let’s talk about fake Android first. That’s my term for the Android Open Source Project, or AOSP for short. This is where anyone can get versions of Android source code to use as they like, free of charge. This is how Amazon gets the code that is used to make the Kindle Fire. It’s where Barnes & Noble gets code to make the Nook. It’s where Alibaba seems to have drawn some of the code for its Aliyun OS.

Google has been more than happy to consider anything using AOSP code to be Android, when it has suited the company, even if that code has been “forked” or changed to make Android-based devices that don’t include Google applications or services.

For example, here’s Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt talking quite happily earlier this year at the CES conference about all the Android products out there that Google doesn’t know about:

[youtube width=”560″ height=”315″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVYEZDn6tdM[/youtube]

Here’s another example. In that first video above at the FairSearch event, you’ll hear Google spokesperson Adam Kovacevich saying how the Kindle Fire is an example of an Android device that doesn’t use Google search, at about 40 minutes in.

See? Google can easily point to Android devices that it doesn’t control, doesn’t influence, that it might even be excluded from a sign of the success of the open source project. That’s true.

But what’s not true is that these are “real” Android devices. After all, if they were real Android, they could use the Android logo. They can’t.

“Real” Android

What are “real” Android devices. These are what Google would call “Android compatible” devices. These are Android devices that have passed a technical test, one Google hopes allows those who buy the devices to be assured that Android apps will run correctly.

Passing the test allows the device maker to ask permission for two key things: the use of the the Android trademark and access to the Google Play app and content store. Android’s FAQ page about compatibility is a fascinating document that explains more about this.

Postscript (Dec. 9, 2015): The compatibility rules are are still the same, but the former FAQ page is gone, and you have to jump through more hoops to understand this now.

The page on using the Android brand is key, where it says: “The use of “Android” on hardware, packaging or marketing materials of a device is restricted to Android-compatible devices only.”

You don’t just get to have these two things. Compatibility is a prerequisite for seeking further permission, permission which is processed as best I can tell by Google itself.

This all leads back to the idea that Android really isn’t open. If it’s up to Google, ultimately, to decide which products are Android-logo worthy, which products can have access to the app and content store, that’s not an open process.

The change earlier this year of the Android Market to Google Play further underscores how closed things are. Users of today’s smartphones expect them to come with an app store. Android having its own Android Market made sense in the “open” Android world. It was the app store for Android users.

When Android Market changed to Google Play, suddenly, the entire “real” Android ecosystem was co-opted into using Google’s brand. What was a market for Android turned into a content play for Google.

Fake Android Needs A New Name: Androidium?

To recap, we’ve got two major types of Android devices out there, “Android compatible” as Google would say or “real Android” as I would say. Everything else is “fake” Android, as I’d put it. That’s a lot easier to understand than terms like:

  • ASOP Android
  • Forked Android
  • Non-Compatible Android

The last makes me laugh. It’s possible to have an Android device that might run Android apps better than “compatible” devices yet still be deemed “non-compatible” simply because the maker didn’t use the test.

Meanwhile, you have this crazy situation where both the mainstream press and tech blogs will write things like the Kindle Fire and the Nook are Android when they’re not, in that they only run apps you’ve purchased through their own app stores, not apps you may have on your “real” Android phone.

It’s time for Google to give the Android Open Source Project a new name, I’d say, and end this confusion.

One model here might be a similar but different sounding name. Google uses the Chromium name for its open source browser project. That’s separate and distinct from the Google Chrome browser that Google itself controls.

Why not Androidium for the mobile OS open source project? Hey, if you hate that name, come up with something else. But something else is needed, so that when Google, Microsoft or anyone says “Android,” we know exactly what it means — real Android. Right now, Android being used for either halves of the Android family or them both combined is generating confusion.

Google: Accept Ownership Of Real Android

As for real Android, it should keep that name but importantly see a shift where Google finally admits what everyone knows. Android is Google mobile operating system, not some open source project that anyone can do anything with.

You simply can’t say things are open when, as I explained, ultimately Google decides if you have access to the Google Play marketplace. Nor is it somehow not Google’s OS when that marketplace carries Google’s brand.

To be fair, yes, even real Android devices aren’t required to push all things Google. No, Android devices do not have to have Google search as the default, as Google stated and as Microsoft ultimately admitted, yesterday.

Certainly Android devices differ greatly from each other, both in hardware and in how they operate. They vary in ways that Apple’s range of iPhones never do, which is a sign that Google isn’t exercising uber-control.

But ultimately, Google does have so much control and influence over Android that it should acknowledge that ownership. It should also embrace the idea that Android — as opposed to Androidium — isn’t open. Nor is that bad.

Closed Isn’t Bad

Google’s been fighting an “open” versus “closed” battle against Apple for some time, hoping to score points with the open argument. But lately, the “openness” of Android keeps getting called into question, as if Google is doing something wrong.

Apple has far more leeway to decide what it wants to do in iOS than Google can do with Android because Apple hasn’t gone around trumpeting that iOS is somehow open.

Certainly Apple comes under fire if it doesn’t allow certain apps to work. But some commentary of Apple’s containment of Google in iOS 6 has been almost gleeful, that I’ve read. I’ve seen little criticism that I should be able to share something to Google+ just as easily as I can to Facebook on my Apple device, if I want. I still cannot use Google Voice on my iPhone as well as I can on my Galaxy Nexus, and I don’t think it’s because Google doesn’t want to make that possible.

If Google were to try and make sharing to Twitter or Facebook difficult on Android, for business reasons just like Apple does things, it would face far more criticism because of Google’s whole “open” stance. I say leave the “open” to Androidium and let Android be closed — or at least acknowledge it as clopen — and Google might find itself looking less hypocritical.

Don’t Try Playing It Both Ways

That leads to what’s sparked all this, the apparent pressure by Google to get Acer to abandon working with Alibaba on a rival OS. Google has no problem if Acer wants to build an iOS device (if it were allowed to). No problem with it building a Windows Phone. No problem, according to Google’s statement, with any OHA partner working on “competing ecosystems.”

But Google does have a problem if that competing ecosystem emerges from the Android open source project? Because there’s “one Android platform,” as it blogged today? Because work on the fake Android ecosystems might lead to “incompatibilities?”

ChartAre you kidding me? Look at the chart to the right, which comes from Google’s own stats. It shows that the majority of Android devices out there are still running the “Gingerbread” Android 2.3 version, 10 months after Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” was released as a replacement.

Only 22% of the devices out there are running Android 4.0. Only 1.2% are running the very latest Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” version. Android updates have been a mess for going on two years, yet Android has survived that huge inconsistency.

Google wants to crack down on Acer for working on an Android spinoff, in the name of consistency, while the promise of faster updates that many of the OHA members made last year seems forgotten?

Google can’t have it both ways, and the more it tries, the worse things look. Google should embrace Android as its own, controlled operating system and rebrand AOSP “fake” Android as Androidium or some other name, the open project that it really isn’t trying to run.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, MarTech, and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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