Exploring Android Forks: Should Amazon Be Considered?

The term “open” has become a hotly debated topic in the tech community, particularly when discussing the Android operating system. I have delved into this subject extensively on TUAW, discussing Android’s openness and the GNU Public License. Recent developments suggest Google is tightening its control over Android, leading some to question the authenticity of its “open” nature.

Despite these changes, Android still offers a level of openness not found in many other operating systems. This could lead to significant developments, such as an Amazon-branded Android that operates outside of Google’s control, potentially leading to greater fragmentation within the Android ecosystem.

Let’s delve into what makes Android distinct from other operating systems like iOS, BlackBerryOS, and Windows Phone 7. But first, a look at the recent developments.

According to a report in Businessweek, Google has communicated to its partners that the era of unrestricted modifications to Android is over. This includes a halt on partnerships outside of Google’s oversight and a new requirement for companies to get approval from Andy Rubin, head of Google’s Android group, for early access to new versions of the software.

This move appears to target versions of Android like those led by Facebook, and devices that replace Google services with competitors like Microsoft’s Bing. There’s also speculation that Amazon’s new Android Appstore could be a step towards an Amazon-branded Android device.

UPDATE: Andy Rubin has responded to the Businessweek article, stating that Google’s approach has not changed and that there are no restrictions on customizing UIs. However, the reality of early access to new versions still being potentially restrictive remains unaddressed.

What does “Android is open” even mean any more?

Many believe that Android’s openness is more of a marketing strategy than a reality. However, looking beyond the marketing, Android’s foundation on Open Source principles does offer more flexibility than its competitors.

Android is released under the Apache license, which allows significant freedom to modify and distribute the software.

However, there are important limitations:

  • Caveat 1: Google releases source code on its own schedule, which may not include the latest versions immediately.
  • Caveat 2: Not all components of Android are open source. Key applications like the Google Play store and Google Maps are proprietary.
  • Caveat 3: The “Android” trademark is controlled by Google.
  • Caveat 4: The source code alone is not sufficient to run on actual devices without additional hardware-specific drivers.

Despite these restrictions, entities like Amazon and Facebook can still use the current Android source to create entirely new products, a process known as forking.

The question of user freedom

Android allows more user customization than many other platforms. For example, apps can adjust system settings or replace the system keyboard. Users can also install apps from sources other than the official Google Play Store, a practice known as sideloading.

Google’s recent changes do not directly impact these user freedoms, but they do aim to limit the extent to which carriers and OEMs can alter the system, which could be seen as a positive development for users.

What about Android OEMs like Samsung, HTC, and Motorola?

The new restrictions from Google place OEMs in a difficult position, as they lose the ability to differentiate their products through unique customizations. This could lead to a more homogenized market where hardware becomes the primary differentiating factor.

However, this could also push companies like Amazon to fully fork Android, creating their own distinct version.

John Devis

John is a passionate tech enthusiast with a deep love for all things Apple. With a keen eye for detail and a knack for uncovering the latest trends and innovations, John brings a fresh perspective to the world of Apple products.