Android means a few different things — but in the end it's all good!

You see the word Android used a lot on the Internet, and it gets used interchangeably for a few different things. I'm not even talking about robots (though some Androids could be running on Android), I'm talking about the mobile platform we all love. And TV set-top boxes. And laptops. Pretty much everything except robots. OK, even robots.

Seriously, when we (or anyone else on the Internet talking about products based on Google's operating system) say Android we're usually talking about one of three different things.

The open Android

The Android stack

Google maintains an open-source operating system named Android. It's got all the low-level "stuff" as well as the needed middleware to power and use an electronic device, and it is freely given away to anyone who wants to grab the code and build the operating system from it. There is even a full application framework included, so third-party apps can be built and installed, then made available for the user to run as they like.

The "proper" name for this is the Android Open Source Project, and this is what people mean when they say things like Android is open and free. Android, in this iteration, is free for anyone to use as they like.

You might have dabbled with this type of Android if you have used custom ROMs. Many third-party developers have taken AOSP and built it as-is for popular phones and tablets. It's pretty bare-bones, but does have everything you need to power and use a smartphone. Or possibly a robot.

The popular Android

Samsung Galaxy S6 edge

There's a very good chance the Android you have in front of you isn't just powered by the open Android — it needs some extra bits included to make a very different version of Android. Don't feel confused just yet.

Whether you have a Nexus phone or a Samsung phone or a Motorola phone or any other brand of phone running Android, they all use a version of Android that has those extra bits. These extras aren't part of the open Android, and you can't freely distribute any of them (even it happens all the time, and generally nobody seems to be too bothered about it).

Your Galaxy S6 runs Android. So does your HTC M9. Or your Sony Xperia. Even your Nexus 5. But they are all very different from each other, and are also different from the open version of Android — which they are ultimately based on.

But they are still Android. We want the extras, whether they be the Google applications and Google Play, or the features that Samsung has added. This is the Android we all use and love.

The Android you're holding

Wall of Androids

If you're the type of person reading about Android on the Internet regularly, you know the phone you're holding is a Samsung Galaxy S5. Or an LG G3. Or whatever. But for many folks (most people, I'd wager) they are holding an Android.

The same way that a Lumia 635 is a Windows Phone, or a BlackBerry Passport is a BlackBerry, or even an iPhone 4S is an iPhone, your Sony Xperia Z3V is an Android.

Lumping everything together isn't such a bad idea. All (modern) Androids can run the same apps, use the same services from Google, and have our unrivaled love and affection. OK, maybe not that, but generally all Androids running Android as built from Android are as similar as they are different.

What does all this mean?

Jackie Chan is confused

For starters, it makes things a bit confusing for folks not familiar with it all. Google uses the same name for two very different things (and so do we) because it mostly works. As consumers, we tend to make it worse because we like to call all Androids an Android (please, not Droid.) In the end, Android is Android — even if a few things have been added on top and it looks a bit different from other Androids.

  • When someone from Google takes to Twitter and says "mkdir android ; cd android ; repo init -u git:// ; repo sync ; make" they are talking about one type of Android.
  • When Google (or HTC or ASUS or anyone else) triumphantly tells us about how cool Android is on their latest phone or tablet, they are talking about another type of Android. Specifically, their type of Android.
  • When your friend texts you to let you know they just bought a new Android from the AT&T store, they are talking about yet another type of Android.

We'll leave dreaming of electric sheep for another blog post ...