Not everyone wants Android to be 'open'

There's a really cool Google I/O moment from a few years back that sticks out in my mind. It was shortly after I published a book on using Android tablets, which it caught the attention of Vic Gundotra. He pulled me aside and thanked me for helping people who weren't super techy learn, and learn to love, Android. That was a big part of the theme that year, making it clear Android was ready for everyone. The language was a direct response to public opinion, due in no small part to the Droid marketing on Verizon. Android was the phone of choice for "power users" instead of people who just wanted a phone — or an iPhone.

There's a reasonable argument to be made for Android suffering right now due to its open nature.

At the time, Google was trying to change the perception of Android as a whole. It took a couple of years to pull this off, and along the way, Android gained a reputation for being less open. Building Android from source nowadays looks nothing like the Android you get on a Pixel, because so much had been moved into Play Services in order to guarantee a certain level of experience across the platform. There's no denying Android as a whole is better off now than it was a few years ago, but it's also true Google sacrificed quite a bit of that "open" nature we nerds loved so much to get here.

And, if I'm totally honest, I'm OK with it. Linux Server Admin Russell from ten years ago would slap me for saying it (and goodness only knows what Jerry is going to do to me when he reads this) but I don't really need Android to be open. That's not why I use it these days.

I use it because notifications are excellent, the way apps interoperate with one another is unparalleled, and I enjoy the tight integration of Google's services with the rest of my workflow. I don't really need the platform to be open source to get any of those things. I don't root my phone. I stopped installing custom ROMs. And the overall benefit of this open platform occurs behind closed doors these days.

In fact, there's a reasonable argument to be made that Android is suffering right now from its open nature. The EU decision levied against Google is only happening because manufacturers don't pay for specific license agreements to use the platform.

We have idiots installing custom ROMs on Galaxy Note 7 phones because enough of Android is available for people to make their own fixes to the things Samsung installed to stop people from using the phones. Fortnite is about to be released outside the Play Store by default, and when a bunch of people have infected phones from installing fake versions of the game we're going to see a bunch of articles about how insecure Android is compared to iOS.

In each of these situations, Android is not closed enough to stop these things from being a problem, and it's no longer open enough to make everyone happy. Google has been walking this line for years now, and the consequences of this are starting to really stack up. I'm OK with Google stepping over the line and closing Android. But I know that's an unpopular opinion among many others, and the arguments for why I am wrong are, frankly, sound.

Some other things rattling around in my brain:

  • Andrew, Hayato, and I are going to be in NYC later this week for the Note 9 launch. There isn't much we don't know at this point, which is fairly standard for a Samsung event at this point. Still, the Note fans have good reason to be excited.
  • With Fortnite likely only heading to high-performance Android phones, are gaming-focused devices like the Razer Phone and ROG Phone going to start being more popular? Is Fortnite a game that sells phones in the same way games can sell consoles? I don't think it is, but you can bet Razer and ASUS are going to push for it as we move into the Fall.
  • I've never been more excited for the launch of a new version of Android. I've been using Android Pie from Day One, and have loved every minute of using it. There are so many things it just does for me, and that's going to be an important part of how I use phones moving forward.
  • It felt weird to get excited about a bike helmet, but that's my life now I guess.
  • I wrote all of this on the new Surface Go. I've used every Surface to date, Microsoft does a good job with these tablets. But compared to comparably priced Chromebooks in schools? I'm not sure Microsoft is ready to compete yet.

That's it for now, get ready for an exciting week!


Russell Holly

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

  • Here comes a comment from Jerry.....(that's your cue) LOL
  • ***" Fortnite is about to be released outside the Play Store by default, and when a bunch of people have infected phones from installing fake versions of the game we're going to see a bunch of articles about how insecure Android is compared to iOS."** This is a Society problem right now it seems less and less people want to take personal responsibility..... and is it ok for google to take a allmost 1/3 of the profit? The day andriod becomes a walled Garden it's the day I stop useing it.
  • I don't think the problem is that people aren't willing to take personal responsibility, it's that they don't understand that the responsibility is theirs In the first place. It comes from the age old problem of people not having any real understanding of how the technology they use works.
  • Absolutely agree with this assessment!
  • That's still an individual problem and not a design flaw. If I put a pressure cooker in the microwave to speed things up, causing an explosion and fire that burns my house down, it's not the microwave or pressure cooker manufacturers fault for not designing either device from physically being out in the other to stop that. It's my responsibility to ensure I know how to operate the equipment I own, with in the safety ratings and specs. Anything I do outside that is my responsibility. It's an implied responsibility and it's not anyone's job to ensure you know that, other than your own.
  • That analogy isn't quite analogous. The difference being, some of these game apps are being touted as the genuine article and safe for your phone. So, in the case of your analogy, it would closer if the pressure cooker manufacturer said it was safe to use the pressure cooker in the microwave, or the microwave manufacturer said it was safe to put metal in the microwave. Now granted, people should know to only use software from the main or legitimate sources, but many aren't that tech literate. Look at all the third party tech on Amazon that masquerades as the real deal when in fact it doesn't actually conform to the standards set by the manufacturer of the product it's intended to be used for, and in some cases doesn't conform to the standards set by UL. Most times you have to wade through a mountain of crap products before you get something that actually works. And you can spend hours, if not days, trying to track down info on some of these cut rate manufacturers. In most cases, Amazon takes a hands off approach unless someone shines a light on these substandard products, then it takes action. After which, said manufacturer comes back with a similar looking product under a different name.
  • No, I think cirrob got it right with that analogy. Google disable the ability to install from Unknown Sources by default so, if you decide to enable the option then you take full responsibility when things go wrong as Google, the phone manufacturer and the app developer didn't force you to enable it.
  • I agree with you as well.
  • Yep
  • This.
  • Look at Android fragmentation it's ******* ridiculous. The Galaxy note 9 is gonna release with Android 8.1 and Android 9 is going to launch not much after. my pixel 2 xl will have Android 10 before the note 9 even gets Android 9. I have a note 8 also which is stuck on 8.0 with June's security patch. There is a ******* problem you moron and if you don't want to use Android if it's more closed then you don't deserve to use it. It's that simple.
  • Fragmented, polarized, however you want to call it - is really the only thing I can complain about Android. Each OEM will modify the stock code and optimize the code to their eco system. I've had many conversations with developers about continually adjusting their base code on their third party apps to make their app work on specific phones. I was hoping 'Treble' would help in the update arena - but now I'm not so sure. Android One was another hopeful candidate, thinking that program would get better and mature, OEMs would adopt or accept it etc., but I'm not so sure there either. Some of us like phones that are dependable, easily updatable and stays current on security concerns. There is always someone who is going to say - I am unique - I am special - come - see that we are different and have something special to offer. There will always be fragmentation within Android as it is now.
  • Lol.. This is a joke. What will you use? iOS.? LMAOOOOOOOO
  • Right, off to the walled Apple garden you would go? Ok. Cya
  • It's fine if you move to Apple, we don't care. Oh wait, Apple is closed too.. Darn, what will you ever do without a smartphone?
  • The reason why I use Android I guess for lack of a better term , I'll give up some of my privacy for the openness of Android. And I'm comfortable with that. With that openings if I want to install a custom rom or what not I can do it.. And if I screw things up or get a virus on my phone I take personal responsibility learn from it and be more careful about where I download from..( never really had that problem before though) The day the Android becomes a Walled Garden is the day I stopped using it.
    And I'll just go to Apple. Because I have to give up a lot less privacy with an Apple phone then I do an andriod phone.
  • Really good article Russell. I am with you that it is time for Google to start closing the gate and protect the Android name/brand from those whose own ignorance damage it.
  • Android's open nature is what made it big in the first place! Please, don't forget/ignore that. Something being open doesn't really have a bearing on how "friendly" it is to users.
  • I don't agree with your opinion, but I can definitely see where you're coming from, and you're not actually wrong. On that note, I appreciate you being big enough to admit that while you're not wrong, your opinion isn't the only one that's right. Personally I think Android ever diminishing openness is important, but things could be tighter. Maybe require an ADB connection to install unknown APKs... Although that would be first step to removing it completely. Android P is actually the least excited I've ever been for an Android release... I'm planning to refuse the update, and the only way I see myself using it is if i go back to unlocking my bootloader and installing custom ROMs so i can keep using substratum, and I don't really want the hassle... It's a dilemma.
  • I agree with this article. Android needs to close it system.
  • Close it.
  • I have said it before, with regards to the EU decision, Android would probably be a bit better if it were more open. Google has, with good reasons, closed down the option for the big players to fork Android. But I think if lets say Samsung had forked Android to run on watches instead of Tizen and if Sony had forked Android to run on their TVs, Google would have gained lots of insight when build Android Wear and Android TV and Samsung and Sony would probably have contributed with lots of solid code for those projects. And if Amazon could have re-booted their Fire Phones with proper Google Play support , I don't think anyone would have suffered because of that. Otherwise, a great article on the matter. Open vs closed is tricky and very hard to get right .
  • I think being open served it's purpose. It's on the majority of the phones across the world and people know it's a viable alternative now. However, as another poster pointed out, it's time for Google to start protecting the brand. It may force other manufacturers to start spending more tine and money I. Development of their own services, which would be an advantage for Google.
  • I love the fact that Android is open as I can sideload App like ShowBox on my phone and even sideload other third party app stores like the Amazon app store but for me ShowBox is the only app I would sideload on my phone but if there's something that comes along that's better than ShowBox then I'll sideload that as well. And if Google ever decided to close up Android and turn it into a walled garden, then I might as well go back to using an iPhone which is what I really don't want to do.
  • You can also sideload Showbox on iOS. It's pretty simple to sideload apps on iOS these days.
  • Sorry, this article was not only kind of light for such a complex topic, it didn't really say much. What are the arguments?
  • Tough topic, but I think Google is doing what they can to find balance between freedom and consistency. Having an Android phone can be wildly different experiences. Not quite anarchy, but assorted for sure. Android One program will help some and Android GO as well, though to a lesser degree. Tough topic, for sure.
  • I think a definition of 'open' is required here. When I hear 'open' I'm thinking I have access to the source code to scrutinize, and if I want, build, modify and sell on. Whether Android has great notifications, great app interoperability, ability to sideload etc has nothing to do with it being 'open'. More and more is being moved from 'open' Android into propriety Google Apps. Google need to make money, and they need to force manufacturers into shipping devices with Chrome, Google Search etc to get customer data. As much as I am a fan of the idea of free/open software, I can't actually see a truly free/open mobile OS happening anytime soon.
  • Yes I agree - 'open source' is one thing - bundling apps is another. I thought the issue with the EU was the strict bundling of apps to provide a cost free alternative. Google has made a huge 'Android' empire that operates on open source code. I don't think that as a whole is going to change.
  • The whole thing with the EU is tricky, that's for sure, and I can to one extent or another see both sides of the argument. In many ways it's similar to ISPs. For example, say a public utility company, who's also an ISP, installs infrastructure for an area to provide internet to people's homes. They did the work, and now plan to provide internet service to the area. Now other ISPs come into the scene, also wanting to offer service, over the original ISP's infrastructure. According to the law, they have to make their lines available to other providers. So these other ISPs can come in and undercut the original ISP's prices because they don't have the overhead of installing the infrastructure to make it happen. So the original ISP takes it in the shorts because they did all the work, but the law allows companies who want to reap the benefits to do so without having to shoulder the costs to make it happen. In Google's case, they bought Android, made it mostly free to use, with the stipulation that their apps be bundled with each device in order for said device to have access to the Playstore. It's not much different than commercials on network TV, it pays the bills so they can offer free content. But the EU is saying that Google shouldn't be able to force them to bundle their apps on other OEM's devices and still allow them access to the Playstore. None of these OEMs have shouldered the cost to develop either the Playstore or Android itself, yet they want to reap the benefits of both getting access to the Playstore and substituting their services for Google's. So say the EU were to get Google to abide by their ruling, how does Google profit from Android so they can continue to develop it and develop and manage the Playstore? The only way I see that going is either Google closes off Android and charges a licensing fee to offset the loss of ad revenue, charges a fee for Playstore access, or both. Otherwise the EU is essentially asking Google to work for free. And as has been stated ad nauseum, there is nothing stopping any of these OEMs from developing either their own OS, appstore, or both. But they were content to let Google do that in exchange for getting a turn key OS and appstore. Now that enough time has passed that developing their own OS and appstore would be unable to compete with Google's offerings, they're crying foul. I'm sorry but I don't have much sympathy for them. When Android first started, they had the chance to compete, but took the easy way out instead, that's on them. They shouldn't cry about it now.
  • All good points - and I don't disagree. From the start - arguably - Android has been designed as a cost free - open - eco system. Google bought it, kept it as an open platform and used it as an advertising platform with their applications. I personally don't have an immediate answer for the EU issue. Googles main infrastructure, I would assume, is based off of advertising. To take that advertising ability away from Google - is a total game changer. Proper compensation? This is something I think everyone, OEMs etc are going to be involved in. Any change to how Android is dispersed - is going to affect a lot of people. I think Google will be very careful how this is handled.
  • Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. I had never bothered to look carefully at the EU 'pile on' of Google. The EU is a beaurocratic nightmare that breaks down due to individual trade veto powers that essentially deny more open, free trade deals. Forcing Google to be closed is the only possible goal the EU had, if they had a goal, and not just envy & contempt for Google.
  • Great article. It's a open system but keep the phone closed to 1 carrier.
  • Close what must be closed, leave open what should be open and deal with the future when it's closer at hand. Of course I could be horribly, disastrously wrong in which case I'll plead the 5th or is it the 10th. Idk I'm so confused! Perhaps such monumental judgements shoud be left to greater minds than mine. After all I'm just a tech geek cause I'm not smart enough to be a nerd. Lets have a Coors Light and dream of happy days and cooler weather.
  • I don't see a reason to close it off. The reason you stated because "idiots" were using the note 7 with a custom ROM was pretty weak, you are blaming the group rather than the individuals.
  • If Google closes the gate, I'm probably just gonna be done with smartphones. If I wanted an iPhone, I'd get one.
  • Android needs to be more closed or manufacturers like Samsung need to stop the bullshit.
  • I agree, Samsung already abuses Android as it is already with their ugly and bloated software.
  • Regarding gaming phones, they will always have fans, but I think they will always be niche devices. You can get 95% of the experience with a solid flagship, unless you don't do anything but gaming. I was at the beach playing Riptide GP2 with the sound cranked up and the phone shaking, and people were coming over to watch me play, including a woman who laid down next to me to watch. Performance was flawless with no stutters or slowdowns or overheating, and it wasn't a Razer or ROG... just an ordinary HTC U11. I'm not a hardcore gamer, but I do play more than most other people I know, and I don't think I'm missing much by using a good flagship instead of a gaming phone. And when I'm not gaming, I have a better device for most everything.
  • It is my observation that Samsung leads with many custom OS features that Google later incorporates into 'stock android.' Only after Google puts Samsung features into stock android to the Google fan boys praise it with babel like 'pure Android experience.' Gesture commands in Android P is but one example Samsung pioneered. And it's ok to hate Samsung... You have that right to take your business elsewhere! That's the beauty of open source and choice! I don't mind Android being open... I like the idea of freedom, even if I'd never sideload or jail break my device... Doing so is generally done to rip of companies and software piracy. The permanent install of apps is a separate issue for Samsung. They operate in countries where the Google app store is banned. On flagship devices in 2018, fixed app storage requirements or memory load are immaterial to overall storage capacity or performance. If I may quote 'The Rock, "It just doesn't matter!" Cheers.
  • I don't hate Samsung and they've played a big part in getting Android to where it is today but I hate their bloatware on their phones and their UI which is ugly to look at, I've always been a pure Android and Google guy and always will be, I don't need duplicate apps of superior Google ones that will make the phone lag within a few months, and their updates suck too, so while I don't hate Samsung I dislike them for their software and poor updates. But that's the beauty of Android, choice I don't have to buy Samsung and I won't. I'm sticking with Pixel.
  • If android becomes closed like ios. I will probably switch to ios as it is a lot less buggy. The openness of android is a big reason i use it.
  • Android is nowhere near as buggy now, it's iOS that's buggy now. I don't think Android will be closed off, and it's openness, flexibility and customise is are reasons why I love the platform.
  • If Google "closing" Android meant no more uninstallable bloatware, timely security and OS updates, and three plus years of software support, then close away. Samsung would probably go its own way but LG and Motorola would probably play ball. And of course Pixels would still be a great option.
  • Yeah by what about keeping the ability to sideload apps outside the Play Store? Google need to keep that openness otherwise mighty as well get an iPhone again which I really don't want to, but hopefully Google won't close Android off that much although Samsung going it's own way will be a blessing and will give others a fair chance.
  • I want Android to be closed. It will cause other companies to make their own OS and we can have some true competitors.
  • I don't want Android to be closed as it would lose its superior advantages and key selling points it's flexibility, customisation and freedom along with the ability to sideload apps outside of the Play Store. With Android we already have choices.
  • « With Fortnite likely only heading to high-performance Android phones, are gaming-focused devices like the Razer Phone and ROG Phone going to start being more popular? «  I don’t think so as they gave basically the szme specs as any other flagship. They are not different enough and their design are not appealing
  • Like it or not w10 in general has pushed enthusiasts away. For android It has been rough especially if not all app devs/pubs keep up with the evolution of the platform but for those of us enthusiasts who dont need hand holding it can be hard when play clashes with open code. Have to admit runescape is an interesting addition