We all know what Android’s supposed to be about. It’s about individuality, and freedom. It’s about customization, and a wide choice of hardware. It’s about free as in speech, and free as in beer. And it’s about to be locked down so tight that it might lose everything we’ve just mentioned. It won’t happen this year, but at least one industry analyst reckons the open source Android’s days are numbered. To quote The Clash, we’re waiting for the clampdown.
Locking down Android. Wait, what?
Android means different things to different people. To us, it’s an open OS. To Google, it’s a Trojan Horse designed to get everybody to use Google services. And to Oracle, it’s a potential $9 billion jackpot.
Oracle recently tried - and failed - to sue Google for using its Java APIs in Android, but while Oracle didn’t win that time it’s widely believed that it might just win on appeal. Oracle argues that Google indulged in “wholesale copying and use of the Oracle code to create a Java based operating system to compete with the Java platform”.
It’s all very dry, but it’s also very important for Android. If Oracle can persuade the appeals court that Google used fair use in bad faith - that is, sticking to the letter rather than the spirit of the law to do something legal but bad - it could have a chilling effect on APIs in general and Android in particular.
According to one analyst, Richard Windsor, Google’s already working on a solution: dump AOSP, the Android Open Source Project, in favor of a new, completely proprietary Google Android. As UK tech site The Register explains: “Windsor says that a highly confidential internal project is underway to rewrite the ART runtime, removing any lingering dependencies from the freely downloadable open source AOSP (Android Open Source Project) code base.” If and when the courts rule in Oracle’s favor, Google then has a perfect excuse to give OEMs a simple choice: Google’s way or the highway.
The reason is our old friend, the F word.
What Google wants
Compare Android on most mobile devices with the Google Chrome browser on any desktop. I’ve just opened Chrome up on my Mac, and it’s happily running the most recent version - 51.0.2704.84 at the time of writing. That’s because Google pushes out the updates whenever it needs to, and I never have to worry about an out-of-date copy unless I stick with really old operating systems.
Google wants that for Android too, but it doesn’t get it. Manufacturers aren’t exactly huge fans of delivering fast, frequent Android updates, largely because they’d much rather sell you another phone, and margins are so tight that adding enough overhead for couple of years worth of OS updates would break most OEMs’ budgets anyway. The result? For many Android users, you don’t get the new OS until you change your phone.
Google knows this, and that’s why it’s been carefully moving more and more key features to its proprietary Google Mobile Services platform at the expense of AOSP, which it’s been largely ignoring for a few years now. It’s effectively rendered AOSP useless to everyone but bargain-basement Chinese OEMs operating in their home markets.
The next step, Windsor believes, is to use the Oracle case to make OEMs embrace a closed Android.
How Google might do it
With AOSP useless, Google can give manufacturers a really simple choice: use its proprietary Android, or go and develop their own OS and app stack. Other than Amazon, the only manufacturer really attempting that was Samsung, which abandoned its plans to do so in 2014 when it signed a 10-year patent deal with Google. What’s left: Sailfish? Tizen? Windows Phone?
“It’s not our fault,” Google will say: “the big bad judge made us do it!” That might work, because a significant part of Android’s PR is based around its openness: from a PR perspective it’s better to blame the courts than admit that a closed source Android is a very good thing for Google.
Which it is. It kills fragmentation, it fends off lawsuits over unpatched security vulnerabilities and it makes every phone a Google phone, with fewer and fewer opportunities for OEMs to mess with it. You and I still get to mess around with it, but the OEMs wouldn’t. If Wilson is right, the new regime will be announced at Google IO 2017.
You can see the appeal for Google, but you can also imagine the backlash. Would it be worth it? Given the choice between Android keeping its core openness and you getting the shiniest, newest Android whenever Google updates it, would you really mind? Let us know what you think in the comments.