An interesting story from Ars Techinca examines the state of Android as an open source project and how Google is attempting to better control fragmentation of the platform. According to the report, Google is moving to help maintain its control over the platform from competing companies like Amazon and others that are using Android but forgoing Google’s services. The result, according to the report, is Google will bring more aspects of Android out of the Android Open Source Project and designate them Google services:
Google has always given itself some protection against alternative versions of Android. What many people think of as “Android” actually 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. While Google will never go the entire way and completely close Android, the company seems to be doing everything it can to give itself leverage over the existing open source project.
Google search has long been a victim of moving away from AOSP, and the recent introduction of Google Play Music means Google is no longer updating its AOSP music app either. Ars notes that Calendar is the most recent app to move to closed source, while the Google Keyboard and Camera appear are moving in the same direction. The screenshots above show AOSP versions of the app mentioned above vs Google’s latest closed source versions. You’ll notice that Google tends to abandon the AOSP versions of the apps once relaunching them under the closed sourced Google services banner.
What does this mean for Android going forward? Google is making life much harder for Amazon and other third-party manufacturers that want to build a competing version of Android without Google’s services…
Not only will OEMs have to replicate all of the closed source Google apps by building their own versions, they will also have to build alternatives for all of the APIs and developer services if it wants Android apps to continue running on their devices. Ars points out that Samsung already builds its own alternatives for most apps (despite also using Google’s services), and does so as a “Plan B” in case it ever has to transition away from Google services. Of course this will lead to speculation that the company is transitioning to a wall garden ecosystem much like Apple’s iOS, but there are a few key advantages for Google.
Ars notes that hints seem to indicate that the next apps to move into closed source will likely be the stock SMS/messaging app and the Gallery app, which according to recent leaks could get rebranded Google Photos in KitKat 4.4. Google has moved more of its APIs and developer services under the closed source Google Play services banner. That gives the company another point of control over the platform, as locking developers into that ecosystem means their apps will only run on Google approved devices.
Google’s goal here is to keep Android users using Google services– the services it actually makes money from– and at the same time make it as hard as possible for third-parties to develop a compelling alternative to Google approved Android devices using AOSP. Hopefully Google’s closed source strategy will also eventually mean improvements to Android’s fragmentation problems.