Rethinking Android as open source


Every once in a while, you hear a public outcry for Nokia, Microsoft or even BlackBerry to adopt the Android platform. Practically all those who make such a request do so with the understanding that Android is an open source operating system in a similar vein to the Linux operating system, which has seen the development of multiple distributions that foster choice and a diverse ecosystem. This cannot be further from the truth, unfortunately.

A quick overview is necessary for a proper understanding of the situation. The main component of the Android operating system is known as the Android Open Source Platform codebase, or AOSP. This provides the essential parts required to power a smartphone, and can be licensed to produce your own Android port.

However, as outlined in this detailed report on Ars Technica, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has been steadily adding a wealth of APIs and system services into a non-open source component known as the Google Mobile Services (GMS), which is only available if a particular phone passes a validation process. Moreover, newer, more advanced features tend to be added only to GMS, while corresponding APIs in AOSP tend to be left untouched, or generations behind in terms of capabilities.

By adopting an all-or-nothing approach where GMS validated phones must include all software components specified by Google, the company is able to maintain an incredibly tight leash on the Android platform. And yes, GMS is a big deal, since it provides APIs and services that apps users expect to be available, such as Google Maps, Google+ integration, Chrome, Search and many more.

As you can see, phone makers that hop onto the Android platform have very little control and differentiation beyond what Google allows, and offering improved hardware specifications or features. Peter Bright of Ars Technica summed the situation up superbly when he recently wrote "Google has worked to make Android functionally unforkable, with no practical way to simultaneously fork the platform and take advantage of its related strengths: abundant developers, and abundant applications."

We reported in August last year on the resignation of Jean-Baptiste Quéru, who was the maintainer of the Android Open Source Project. At that time, he wrote that "there's no point being the maintainer of an Operating System that can't boot to the home screen on its flagship device for lack of GPU support."

Of course, the issue does revolve around code components that Qualcomm is unwilling to open source. However, it can be argued that if Google was truly interested in AOSP, it would have made the release of the pertinent code as a mandatory condition for using Qualcomm chips for its Nexus 4 and Nexus 7 devices.

Ultimately, there is no doubt that Google has pulled off a brilliant move with GMS. But before asking Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and BlackBerry to ditch their mobile platforms and make only Android phones, we need to ask ourselves if we are ready to cede the future of smartphones to just two proprietary platforms made by two companies: Apple and Google? - Paul Mah  (Twitter @paulmah)