• The State of Open Source: Android

    by Ben Pearson
    January 20th, 2014

    A Giant is Born

    Andy Rubin founded Android INC in 2003. Originally, his plan was to create a camera platform that included a selection of third party apps, but this was ultimately expanded to include smartphones after concluding the digital camera market was too small. Google purchased Android in 2005 and went public with its development of the operating system in 2007. In September of 2008, T-Mobile launched the first Android smartphone, the G1, and in 2009 Android’s popularity exploded when the Motorola Droid was released. Marketed as an alternative to the iPhone, the Droid was an incredible success, selling over 500,000 units in just the first month. Since then, Google has made a wealth of improvements to the operating system and has become a leader in the mobile operating system market.

    Today, Android is the most popular mobile operating system environment in the world, with nearly double the market share of the 2nd place iOS from Apple, although Apple is leading in a number of wealthier nations including the US, the UK, and France. However, Android’s user base is highly fragmented, primarily between three different versions of Android. If you consider specific versions of operating systems, iOS 7 is the most used mobile operating system in the world. Regardless of your interpretation of this data, it is hard to deny the incredible success Android has had in the mobile operating system market.

    Open Source Roots, Proprietary Augmentation

    The Motorola Droid

    By the most fundamental definition, Android is a distribution of Linux, though you might not know it at first glance. The main features that Android adds to Linux are a user interface built for touchscreens as well as an extensive set of APIs, support for a number of wireless connectivity protocols including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, optimized Java support, built in telephony protocols and a number of other features. Google is also one of the largest contributors to the Linux kernel, although the company’s actions have not always been well accepted by the community.

    While Android found its beginning in open source projects, its open nature has since been questionable. According to Google, the ability to download and compile the code makes Android open source. While this is technically correct, this definition differs somewhat from what has traditionally been considered open source. Google allows developers to download, modify and redistribute the code, but it lacks the community development approach and assurance of total freedom over the software that typically is associated with open source projects. In addition, phone manufacturers are permitted to package Android with proprietary software, essentially turning it into a closed source operating system.

    The success of open source projects is typically a result of the network effect, a phenomenon in which certain types of technology become more valuable as more people utilize them. A good example is the Internet, which would be completely worthless if there was only a single person using the technology behind it. As more users get involved in the development of an open source project, it becomes more valuable to the people who use it. Android’s model does not completely eradicate the network effect, but it does hinder it to some degree.

    Another element of Google’s proprietary ambitions has been dubbed the closed source creep. This is a practice in which Google halts development on open source aspects of the Android operating system and re-releases them as proprietary applications. Some apps that have already received this treatment include that native calendar, search, keyboard and music apps, while others appear to be set to go through a similar process in the future. In order for a hardware manufacturer to include these apps on their devices, they are forced to join the Open Handset Alliance; any company that does so is prohibited from releasing any devices that utilize an Android fork. Google also encourages developers to utilize proprietary libraries for apps they release on the Google Play marketplace, further reducing the diversity in the Android marketplace. Google certainly has the right carry out these actions, but this will only reduce Google’s legitimacy in the open source community. These actions paint a questionable picture of Android’s future as an open source environment.

    A Plethora of Spin-offs

    Replicant LogoThe ability to download Android’s source code has resulted in many companies utilizing the operating system in conjunction with custom hardware. Objects like a motorcycle helmet, watch, GPS unit and incar computer system have all utilized Android. The number of objects integrating the operating system is only increasing, and many manufacturers are choosing Android simply because it is open source. Doing so allows these companies to focus on integrating an established operating system into their devices rather than designing their own from the ground up. This means these companies do not need to deal with licensing issues or pay royalties to another company.

    Android has also spawned multiple competitors in the mobile operating system market. Replicant has the goal of producing a completely free alternative to Android by replacing the proprietary services Google has integrated into the OS. This will combat the closed source creep that has been occurring in Android and will offer developers alternatives to the services controlled by Google.

    Cyanogenmod made the news in September 2013 when it announced that it was becoming a full-fledged company after receiving a $7 million investment. Like Replicant, Cyanogenmod is focusing on replacing the proprietary services of Google with its own and is currently working on a replacement for the Google Play store. The ultimate goal of the company is to create an app that allows users to quickly install their OS on any device.

    An Open Source Foundation for Success

    Cyanogen LogoAndroid’s incredible success demonstrates the effectiveness of riding the line between open source and proprietary applications; Google has utilized an open source operating system to augment the variety of services the company offers while still allowing other companies to use its products. In the past, numerous companies have struggled to develop an adequate business model from open source products, and Google will likely serve as a model for many companies in the future. It is impossible to deny the impact Android has had on mobile computing. Our culture will reap the benefits for many years to come.


    Part 1 of this series can be read here.

    Image Credits: Google, Jan Stöcklin, Mirella Vedovetto, Paul Kocialkowski, Dan Lynch