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The 'open and free' Android is no longer what anyone wants to buy (or sell)

Android is one of the largest and most popular collections of open source software that has even seen the light of day. But the Android you're getting when you buy the next important phone isn't, and we have to wonder if anyone really cares.

Open source and "free and open" doesn't mean free as in getting something that doesn't cost money. It can mean that, and in many cases still does, but it doesn't have to be a zero-cost thing. Most electronic things you buy are using open-source software somewhere to make them work and even companies you would never equate with free-as-in-you-don't-pay, like Apple and Microsoft, use open source software. The people writing the "free" software deserve to be paid if that's their wish and Intel, Cisco and other companies who aren't Mozilla are selling software that's open source.

Most any gadget you can buy uses open source software at some level.

This is great. There is no reason you shouldn't profit from hard work and when a company or person gives a gift of code to other developers they shouldn't lose revenue because of it. I like to think I'm paying for the time it took to build, test and debug something in a case like this, and that's usually well worth the asking price.

Android has used this idea from day one to grow into one of the most-used pieces of software ever. One difference is that the license used for much of Android lets someone (anyone) use the code, change the code, do whatever with the code and not make those changes available to the rest of us. We've talked before about how this benefits everyone involved in the making of a phone and why it's part of the reason Android is something so many people want to use in the thing they are trying to sell.

But we can go deeper. I'll risk saying that the things that make Android something most of us want to use are the things that were never open source and never will be: every single app. When you add these two things together you end up with something that is neither open or free, and it ends up marginalizing the things that are. This builds a very wide gap between the Android that's free for anyone to use and do anything with and the Android that makes all the money.

Open source is why Android has over 80% worldwide market share: it's free to use and cheap to customize.

This history and some new rumors have plenty of folks concerned. Around the water cooler, talk suggests that much of what will be great in Android O is really a collection of things that will be great in the Google Pixel 2 or whatever its name will be. When we say great, we mean things that improve the lives of the people using it. The changes at the building block level are awesome in their own right, and so far what we've seen will all become part of Android and available for everyone who wants to download the code. But when it comes to the user-facing side, the idea that Google can keep exciting stuff for its own products is a concern to open-source evangelists like me.

It's important to remember that this is no different to what any other phone manufacturer is doing. Samsung takes the free Android and runs it through a development team to produce something wildly different that will never be open sourced. But Samsung is not Google and is not charged with furthering the entire platform. In fact, Samsung can do these things — as can Amazon at the other end of the spectrum — because Google has been committed to further developing the platform and gives away the code. Google is now not only the platform maintainer but is an end-user for Android code, too. This can get tricky, and not in a good way.

Google has never said it is not going to add new and exciting features to Android as a whole.

If you only read one thing here make sure this it that thing. We're speculating on other speculations and tossing it together with what we've seen in the past. Nothing would make any of us happier than someone from Google saying we are chock full of nonsense and it has every intention of adding so many cool things to Android that we get dizzy hearing about them all. But this entire industry thrives on the what-ifs.

What if Google adds the required changes to AOSP and stops there? AOSP is part of a fully functional operating system and is easier than most people think to build for a mobile device. But the end result is not what most people want, and pre-installed and configured apps and services are Android's real draw.

We want the next Pixel to be great and unique, but we want those features to be available to others. That's the tension.

My Raspberry Pi smartphone works just fine, but I'd rather use a phone with Gmail and all the other benefits that aren't open source so it's just a novelty. That's the reason why the Raspberry Pi phone you can build at home with $90 worth parts isn't something we're all rushing out to make or buy. The Galaxy S or Moto G or any other phone is just better at doing what we want a phone to do.

All the companies making Android phones are capable of doing great things — even the brands you don't like. But there are some things that are better because they are universal and those are all part of the open Android. We want the next Pixel to be great and have features that make it a great buy, but we want most of those features to be available to others. That's the tension.

The Android Open Source Project is an amazing thing and Google spends a good bit of money to keep it maintained and available. We hope it stays that way for a long time.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

53 Comments
  • Excellent article.
  • Articles like this are always a good time to jump in and say this is why Google needs to start forcing partners to take updates seriously and eliminate the fragmentation issue. Because most phones are never updated, it takes about 2 years for a given version of Android to reach a meaningful level of adoption, during which time other newer versions are released. Developers have no incentive to adopt new API levels, because it will be years before most users can actually use those features. Google can do this, for exactly the reason at the heart of this article. All Google has to do is threaten to pull Play services from devices that aren't receiving the latest updates in a timely fashion. They should obviously exempt devices currently in the market, so no one gets hurt in the transition. Going forward, anyone who wants to partner with Google would have to guarantee software updates for 2 years (plus 2 years of security patches) and ACTUALLY DELIVER the updates, or they get the axe. With Google's gun to their head, what choice would the handset makes have but to comply?
  • Ahem brother!!! Preach!
  • If Google did what you're suggesting, there's a few things that could happen (because I don't expect any OEM to agree to that sort of demand).
    1. OEMs would give Google the proverbial finger and do their own thing. This could be via developing their own OS in-house (the Apple approach) or by creating their own fork of Android (the Amazon approach). This approach would be favoured by the likes of Samsung, Huawei and Lenovo.
    2. OEMs would just stop making phones altogether. Sony would take this approach as their mobile business is already losing a lot of money but can fall back on their other ventures (TVs, PlayStation, etc).
    3. OEMs would simply just shut up shop. HTC would be likely to take this approach as they have nothing to fall back on should they go out of the phone business.
  • 1) You think that the other manufacturers would really rather develop their own in-house OS than play ball with Google? They could do that now, but they don't, because it's easier to just use Android. If they did all branch off and do their own thing, how exactly would that be bad? Right now, Android has made it impossible for other players to make any inroads, and that doesn't just change if Google raises the bar for compliance.
    2) Fewer OEMs would actually be good for the overall quality of Android. The average selling price for Android phones is so low that none of the manufacturers can't actually make a profit (except for Samsung, who owns their whole supply chain). Reduced competition would mean that Samsung wouldn't have to crap out a dozen low-end models every quarter that they can't possibly support, and they could just focus on their flagships, putting them on equal footing with Apple.
    3) Same as 2. Who cares if HTC can't compete? They can't. They haven't released a noteworthy phone since the original One... other than the One A9, which was only noteworthy for its slavish copying of the iPhone 6s, and the broken promise of timely updates. The only companies that really matter right now are Apple, Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Xiaomi, all of which are vertically integrated to varying degrees. Apple has a proprietary OS with top-shelf developer support, and unparalleled ARM expertise, so they're safe. Samsung has great screens and own their own fabs. Xiaomi has the most radically forked version of Android, but it works to their advantage in China and (maybe) India. HTC has no proprietary hardware or software expertise.
  • Given how there are security​ updates released every month, OEMs would have to invest a lot of time and resources into making sure those updates are delivered in a timely manner -things that OEMs are loath to shift from developing new hardware Also, Samsung already has Tizen in their back pocket and it's easy for other OEMs to create their own fork of the base AOSP code (which doesn't contain any Google services) and fill in the gaps with alternatives (either in-house or licensed from other companies).
  • Releasing a non-Google Android handset would be death. Amazon did exactly that, and it failed HARD. And they already had an app store for their Kindle tablets for years before launching the phone. No handset maker would try that again. If OEMs don't want or cannot afford to support the handsets they make, then they should make fewer handsets, or none. Or, they could just start selling Windows Phones, because Microsoft does all the heavy lifting, the handset makers barely have to do anything to provide software updates.
  • The single largest smartphone market in the world (China) does not ( officially) have have any Android devices supporting Google services. Device manufacturers like Samsung, Huawei, Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi sell millions upon millions of devices in China with no Google play services, no Google Play store, no Gmail. I am not saying this is the best solution because the half a dozen app stores are a mess with no proper monitoring of what could be malware or spyware. But the fact is that a as far as sheer numbers go a significantly large proportion of Android devices in the (global) market are without GPS.
  • I think the reason Amazon's non-Google Android phone failed was due to lack of global distribution (I don't think it made its way outside the US).
  • That makes very little sense. If Amazon couldn't sell a phone in its home market, where it dominates online retail, what makes you think they could have done a better job overseas? Just because the Asian market is less reliant on Google services doesn't make the Fire phone a good product.
  • To regards to your to your comment about HTC they would not close up shot for the fact that they are partnering with Google to make the next two pixels minion pixel 2 in pixel 3 since they already made Pixel one. They would just keep the partnership going with Google along with making their own phones and be basing the only manufacturer that actually has a true Google phone. Since the hardware is coming from HTC for the pixels.
  • Only Pixel 2 not yet the 3. I suspect Google will use multiole companies to assemble the Pixel 3. They have asked for bids for the 3.
  • That's sadly much easier said than done. Different OEMs have different philosophies when it comes to tweaking Android. Some prefer to stick to a vision that detracts very little from Google's ideal vision while others tweak the OS extensively to better integrate them with their own ecosystem. The different flavors is one of Android's biggest strengths, but also probably its biggest weakness.
  • What more can Google do? The Pixel might end up being the only way as nothing else has worked.
  • Great article. Everyone wants the pure Android experience, without even knowing what that would look like or what features you would be missing out on. Brands having their own take on Android is also a good thing creating diversity, growth, competition, even brand loyalty.
  • Android should have a "bypass the manufacture" button under System Updates that will deliver the latest vanilla Android, just like it does for Pixel, Nexus, Android One and Google Play Editions. I'd buy a non-Google phone IF I could be guaranteed regular vanilla Android updates.
  • It's a great idea in theory, but who would take responsibility for nagging bugs. Issues between hardware and the vanilla experience? The OEM won't, because they already offer a software version tailored specifically to the hardware. Google won't, because they barely address bugs on their own hardware. AOSP coders may take an interest on the latest and greatest, but mid range devices and lower will suffer.
  • You've arbitrarily labeled Google Android as Vanilla Android. That's something that you've made up without any connection to reality. Your suggestion makes no more sense than saying that every phone deserves access to Samsung Android. If there were a "bypass the manufacturer" button, that would mean AOSP and you would hate it.
  • I thought this article was about asop .
    Apparently it's another Pixel rant, so what. Google is developing for their phone first go figure... I'll just vote with my wallet and buy something other than Google hardware. Google makes enough off of me already
  • Why can't Google work with OEMs to create a theme/plugin system that would allow the OEMs to add all of the crazy customizations that they want and allow Google to take care of the system update/upgrades??
  • Because the customisations go much deeper than the UI you see on your device. There's a lot of behind the scenes optimisations and changes to make Android work the way a particular OEM wants it to work for that device.
  • The best would be to use Sony's framework fork substratum engine. If that developer and Google integrated substratum in AOSP no other themes or engines are needed.
  • Wish android could be like windows where the base is the same and updates go out at the same time even if they have a "skin" on top of it. 
  • This. Plus the requirement that bloatware be removable
  • If you ask me - everything is doable. But I am not sure if the intention is there. Or may be there is: with next-gen Android to bring in line with Chorme OS.
  • Thanks for the great read. I hadn't really thought about this as a "downside", so to speak, with Google having its own equipment. My biggest beef is with security though. I don't care about the latest and greatest as long as I'm relatively up to date on security patches. I'm loving Lineage OS for that reason. Latest security patch on my paid for HTC m8 and it does everything I need it to do along with having the front facing speakers I like. The only drawback is that I'd like to dump AT&T and try Project fi, but that may just have to wait until something comes along that would justify spending the cash on an upgrade. Thanks again for giving me something interesting to think about, Jerry.
  • My first thoughts on this... Ehh... What..? I thought if any developer that used any - portion - of an open source licensed - project or code - that that person had to disclose it and he or she \ they \ could not charge for their final product...? Usually developers either go Open Source or Proprietary... The draw to Android was a 'mature' code base that would be improved over time to which different developers could use and add additional code to support their 'flavor' or their 'personal experience' on the same platform to share with others... "Same, but different". Not just preinstalled apps. Personally, I admire talent and efficiency... Simple and efficient. My 2 from a past hobbyist..
  • Pretty sure it is dependent on which open source license that was used. What you describe is definitely GPL, but I think the BSD license is a little more relaxed.
  • GPL doesn't forbid commercial, otherwise nothing with Linux (GPL 2.0) could be sold. Some Creative Commons licenses are non-commercial (look for the NC initials).
  • Right the GPL doesn't forbid commercial, but it does forbid changing the code and selling it without releasing the changes.
  • Depends on the type of open source license.
  • Do you think it was part of Google's vision to get Android to be as ubiquitous as it is now, then release their own Google branded devices with exclusives features not included in AOSP?
  • Samsung tweaking a lot now with android, like Bixby with a dedicated hardware button for it. But I think Nokia will be interesting. They seems to go for a "Pure Android" approach similar to the Pixel phones.
    Will be interesting to see how they will be able to compete on the market. We will see those in may according to some sources.
  • The problem with Samsung doing that is they also put all of Googles apps on the phone which provide the same exact function.
  • Have a S7E. Incredible hardware but software is a train wreck for the reason you shared. Never woild i buy another Samsung phone. I would have easily paid $100 extra to have vanilla Android.
  • They can put all the stuff. But let me remove any of those, if I do not want it.
  • Whats'up with Samsung software guys?? i find them good, some of them are kind of an afterthought of an idea but they are cool and you still have google apps to use too. Having a dedicated button for Bixby only is quite a let down but Samsung's apps are cool, they just trying the Apple way. One thing is for sure Samsung is preparing Galaxy users for the upcoming switch from Android to Tizen.
  • Here's the thing. Android itself is free and open to anyone. But the Google Services aren't. To get certification to be able to commercially load Google Services, OEMs need to follow a set of guidelines. Remember why nearly every Android has a white battery indicator? That's why.
  • Don't you have to pay Microsoft to use Android as there's some Microsoft patents in use? I thought that was the case. Anybody knows of that's still true and what patents are those?
  • Yes Samsung payed a lot to Microsoft for those patents. But they have a settlement of some kind now. Thats why they will sell the new Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ in Microsoft stores with some pre-installed Microsoft apps etc..
  • So if not enough of a mess with Samsung phone and software why not add another eccosystem.
  • need to rewrite this to make sense, not saying there is not a point, just confused presentation
  • +1
  • Or ... Inebriated.... Just saying... LOL... LMAO. ..
  • Why do the phones have to come customized out of the box from the manufactures? I believe the ability to have the community come up with launchers and custom button fonts is the reason Android is so popular. The ability to customize to a color scheme that people want and like makes it sucsessful. Apple doesn't and that's why their OS looks exactly the same on everyone's phone or tablet. I just don't get the benefit of Samsung or LG or whoever to create their own custom launchers out if the box.
  • I agree with this. Thus why I get a nexus phone and or pixel now. I buy Samsung HTC and iPhone every year to. But nothing beats a google phone. Samsung puts to much over Android even now so does htc. Htc use to have the best hardware now that goes to Samsung and the only thing htc has going for it now is the pixel phone. My opinion. I have the HTC 10 because I love the htc 7 and I was very disappointed lol. My current phone is the pixel now. I just pre ordered the s8 but im sure once I get past the sexy phone look ill be back on the pixel lol
  • You're the first person I've seen that owned the HTC 10 to say they were disappointed with it
  • Im here for the beer!
  • I've owned several Nexus phones and would not buy anything else because I do like the "pure" android experience. That being said Google knows what Apple and Amazon know. Control the ecosystem. Google can give Android away all it wants but they have a serious influence on what people will buy. Try running Google services on a Blackberry, or a Windows Phone. It can be done but it's not the seemless experience that it is on an Android device. Consumers love their "Apps". If they can't get them on the phone they want to buy it doesn't matter how great the hardware is.
    I've been using an HP Elite x3 since it came out. It's a terrific Windows device. To own one though you will give up some app functionality. I wanted to try a Windows Phone with Surface 4 Pro. I know it can be done with my Nexus 6. Most consumers like the hardware but if they can't get the apps they want they won't buy that phone.
  • Regardless if it is an app or a particular device's feature, when one is forced to share it with others, what would compel someone to buy that device?
  • Come on AC don't be naive ot id business! If google wants to sell its phones, they are right in making their own features...
  • I think a lot of people still care about Open Source. I would argue that it is the only true way forward in a world of complete lack of privacy. I think this article misses the entire point of open source software. Open source matters because anyone can audit it and build it from source, to ensure that nothing nefarious is going on behind the scenes (like stealing your information and selling it to a third party, for example). Open Source = Secure. Maybe most people don't care... the average user absolutely does not care (or more accurately, doesn't understand why they should care)... but a lot of people do care and it's more than just because of the price you pay for it. If it's free and closed source, almost certainly, YOU are the product. If it's free and open source, at least you can see whether or not you are the product.
  • "We want the next Pixel to be great and have features that make it a great buy, but we want most of those features to be available to others." What are you worried about? Available to others? 90% of the time, when Google releases a new Android, those "new" software features were already available FROM others for 3-6 years before Google added them. Consumers couldn't care less whether those features came from AOSP or were added by the OEMs. And when it comes to hardware, Google seems to have no intention to offer what other OEM's phones can do. Heck, Google still won't even add a frickin microSD slot to its phones.