When the iPhone was first announced in the summer of 2007, it caused waves throughout the mobile market, with many proclaiming it to be one of the greatest innovations in the mobile industry. Simultaneously however, this announcement left many, especially Google, uneasy at Apple’s potential dominance in the industry. They saw an ominous future for smartphones if Apple was allowed to monopolize the market. It was said that if there was no competition to fight against Apple, there would be a draconian future—a future where one man, one company, one device, [and] one carrier would be our only choice.
At the time, Google was in fact an iPhone launch partner as well as a provider of some of it’s core system apps—YouTube and Google Maps. However, Google eventually released the Android mobile operating system as the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) in November of 2007. The key phrase to take from this is that Android is in fact an Open Source Project, which in contrast to Apple’s model of a closed ecosystem, is meant to be available for anyone to use on any device free of charge and restrictions. As noted by, Ars Technica,
After 7 years, however, the landscape for smartphones is now entirely different from what it was like when it started. Since 2007, Android has brought the platform to a whopping 81% market share, but it is important to understand that “Android succeeding” and “Google succeeding” are two different things, since in truth these two entities are meant to be separate—Android being an Open Source Project and Google being a firm that builds their own version of Android (Google’s Android).
It is imperative to note that Google does not control the Android Open Source Project. It does, however, control its own version of Android built on top of the Android Open Source Project. Well, at least in theory, this is how the entire Android ecosystem should work—Google develops for the AOSP, gives it to the open source community, and uses its version for smartphones
81% and Further
The differences between Android and iOS root from user experiences, the performance of the device with the operating system, and most importantly, the number of valuable apps that are supported on the platform. If even just one piece is missing, no one would use the platform, a situation most notably seen with Microsoft’s Windows 8.
However, for those platforms that are already well-established, namely iOS and Android, differentiating between the two is very hard as both platforms already have well-built user experiences. Actions performed on one system can often be performed on the other system, but the one area that can still make a difference is apps selection. Here, both Apple and Android have little say in forcing developers to create applications for their software.
From Apple’s perspective, apps existing in a closed system ensure that they are created for iOS and will only run on Apple-made devices.
On the other hand, the situation is a little different when a developer builds an App for Android. In theory, any app built for Android can be used on all versions of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). This means that someone today could design an operating system based on the AOSP and have access to hundreds of thousands of apps. The most successful and prominent example of an Android OS that is not Google’s version of the AOSP is Amazon’s Kindle Fire’s Operating System. Amazon took the AOSP, developed their own operating system, and used its own App Store, media store, browser, online storage, email client, and many more apps instead of the Google Play Store, Google Chrome, Gmail and other Google products. In fact, the entire country of China skips Google’s services as well, since most Google products are still banned in the country. The only option for those users is, in the same manner as Amazon, for developers to create a version of Android based on the AOSP that Google develops but avoid Google’s services and apps. As Ars Technica puts it
Android has transformed from being Google’s protection against Apple’s dominance to something that could very well play a key role in its demise in the mobile industry. Mobile is the future of all services, and controlling the biggest mobile platform is something that no one wants to lose. The problem here is how Google can control something meant to be open source. For Google, it means differentiating its version of Android from the AOSP and effectively making one qualitatively better than the other.
So how does Google achieve such a perplexing goal that very well undermines the purpose of the entire project? The answer? Apps. In the same way that Apple’s apps can only run on iOS (i.e. Safari, Mail, iBooks, Siri) Google’s Apps (i.e. Gmail, Google Drive, Google Plus, YouTube) can only be run on platforms that directly benefits itself- Google’s Version of Android.
Closing the Door
In truth, there have always been closed source Google Apps, but in the beginning, the number of apps was relatively small. When Google had no market share, it was more willing to build on the Android Open Source Project. However, now that Android has become the dominant force that it is, Google feels compelled to have more control over the open source codes.
For most of these closed source apps, there are still currently versions that are similar in function inside the AOSP version, but as soon as Google decides to make any of these apps completely closed and completely under their control, work on the AOSP version will cease in development. This will thus force the competition develop their own versions of the apps. It can be said that any time that Google announces a new app or a complete rework of an AOSP version, you can be sure that you will only be able to find it on the Google Play Store and not on the AOSP version.
Google Search App
In the summer of 2010, Google launched Voice Actions and the “Google Search” app into the Android Market (the original name of the Google Play Store) of Android 2.2, codenamed Froyo. As we can see the AOSP version of Android 4.4 KitKat looks like it is still stuck since the last time Google touched the app when Android 2.2 Froyo was latest platform. As we can see, as soon as Google releases a closed source version of an app once in the AOSP, the AOSP variant of the app ceased development. The Google version in comparison to the AOSP version now has voice search, text-to-speech analysis, and Google Now the automated assistant service. The current AOSP 4.4 KitKkat can only do normal written searches.
At the Google I/O developer’s conference back in 2010, the company introduced, for the first time, its their new and upcoming music app called Google Play Music. Again, as soon as Google Play Music was released via the Google Play Store, the AOSP music player has become stuck in the Froyo days. Now, the Google Play Music app offers cloud music streaming, clean new user interface designs, and Chromecast support, whereas the current AOSP gained nothing new since 2010.
SMS and Messaging
With the release of Android 4.4 KitKat along with the flagship Nexus 5 device in the fourth quarter of 2013, Google unified the AOSP SMS application with its own Google Hangouts app. As a result, all development of the AOSP messaging application ceased, and now all Google Android phones will be running Google Hangouts as the default SMS app. Moreover, the app itself also differentiates itself from the AOSP version by offering video conferencing, similar to the Facetime app, and direct messaging to Google Hangouts on both other mobile and on the desktop as well.
Locking Down the Manufacturers
It is evident that Google is trying its best to discourage everyone from using the AOSP version of Android by controlling apps. The company believes apps are the key reason why customers are attached to Android. However, it is still the manufacturer’s final decision to choose which version of Android to pick. Of course, Google cannot allow the manufacturers to be totally free in choosing their choice of Android’s variations.
Hypothetically, if a company does manage to build a version of Android from the AOSP that is anywhere near as good as Google’s version, and clone perfectly the features and looks of all the Google Apps, such a company would find it even more difficult to find someone to even make the device. If the market is completely free and perfectly competitive, it would be as easy as signing a contract with a manufacturer. But again Google does not allow that.
Google’s dominating control over these manufacturers is based on the fact that its apps are simply the best in what they do namely. Apps such as Gmail, YouTube, Google Now, Hangouts and Play Store are so integral that it would be impossible for any manufacturer, big or small, to survive without them on their devices. And to get these apps, they must learn to play nice with Google.
Though there is no official requirement that a complete agreement must be made with Google to run all its apps, it will definitely be made easier if you play along with Google in its games known as the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). The alliance is made up of the big names of mobile manufacturing from the likes of Korea’s Samsung and LG to Sony to Acer to Dell to Asus. And what they all have in common is that they uphold and commit themselves fully and only to Android, more specifically, Google’s Android. And what if you choose to disobey? In 2012 Acer, a very prominent Windows PC and mobile manufacturer, decided that it wanted to work on a project to manufacture a phone that will run China’s Alibaba’s Aliyun OS (an OS built on the AOSP)
The only company that is audacious enough to go against Google’s reign of fear and terror is Amazon, who developed its own version of Android based on the AOSP for its Kindle Devices. Furthermore, since Amazon’s version of Android is regarded as an “incompatible version of Android” by Google, no manufacturer part of the OHA is allowed to produce Amazon’s devices. That means Acer, Asus, Dell, Foxconn, Fujitsu, HTC, Huawei, Kyocera, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, NEC, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba, and ZTE will not be able to become manufactures for Amazon simply because Google will not allow it. Currently Amazon is using the manufacturer Quanta Computers/
For manufacturers, being in this alliance forces them to completely rely on Google and keeps them from moving away from Google’s Android. Manufacturers either choose to stay on Google’s Olympus or choose to be kicked down the mountain as soon as they produce a different version of Android. Not only will the fall be painful, but they will never be allowed to climb back up. The only way to leave is to be cunning but prepared at the same time.
To be part of the OHA and license the Google Apps one must pass Google’s so-called “compatibility” tests. According to Google, these tests are to ensure that all the Apps in the Play store will run smoothly on a manufacturer’s device. Moreover the word “compatibility” in Google’s terms can be very vague when the company wants it to be. Even Android engineers at Google know that they are:
Making life more difficult, these licenses for Google Apps are only given as a bundle, making it impossible for manufacturers to choose which Google Apps they want to run and which ones they do not. It’s all or nothing.
Thinking Outside the Box
At this time, the vision of manufacturers being completely free from Google is a fantasy at best. One popular path that manufacturers take is to create their own alternative versions of Google Apps for mobile devices.
A company that is doing relatively well in testing Google’s reach is Samsung. Right now, Samsung has replicated all of its apps: a user account system, backend syncing and even its own app store. In fact, most of these applications are actually rooted on the foundations of the original AOSP version of the apps. But Samsung chose to add on feature sets long after Google have abandoned them for closed sourced version of its apps.
Nevertheless, looking from the consumer’s perspective, having these doppelganger apps on the same phone along with Google’s version of apps, which are far more superior, is just simply ridiculous. But for manufacturers, these junk apps are actually their “Plan B”; something that they can hold on to. If Google were to push manufacturers too far, resulting in manufacturers leaving the alliance, the manufacturer will need something to show to its customer to prove that its platform has value. Thus having these apps, whether or not the consumers like them, is important to the manufacturers.
Despite the fact that Samsung seems awfully prepared for the worst, Google still has a strong hold when it comes to apps that run on Android, which is a key part in making any platform a success. It seems that Google’s last string on everyone is the developers that are equally critical in making any platform successful
Locking Down the Developers
In late 2013, Google launched a service known as Google Play Services in order to defragment its scattered Android platform to achieve a better unity amongst all devices running Android, again, more specifically, Google’s Android.
In the past, Google Updates were done first in the AOSP. They are then sent to the manufacturers to adapt to their devices, and the devices are sent to the hundreds of carriers around the world. Where, after testing, they are sent back to the manufacturer for revisions. This process repeats itself numerous times, and eventually the device will reach the consumer months after Google announced the release of a new version of Android. In such a case it is difficult for Google to apply the changes it wants to apply to its manufacturers.
Now, instead of relying on delivering updates through new versions of the operating system and rebuilding the AOSP, Google tries to push system updates to its apps instead via the Play App Store. In such a case, not only does a device with all of Google Apps be updated with brand new features just like a new phone with a new operating system, but Google is also moving completely from open sourced model to a closed sourced model. First in the form of apps and now in the form of system wide changes, which are now delivered through app installation/updates instead of system wide updates. Moreover, if this transition becomes completed, it would mean, too, that apps running on Android depend on Google Apps installed (aka Google Play Services) instead of relying in the foundational platform that is the AOSP. This makes any app running with Google Play Services incompatible with any other devices that are not running Google’ s Android.
But why exactly would developers depend solely on Google Play Services rather than fully on the Android AOSP platform? As a matter of fact, in the same way you lure consumers with features, you do the same with developers. However, you do so instead with selling possibilities. Briefly speaking, Google Play services offers a platform for apps along the lines of cloud saving of game, saving app data, the use of Google’s map data, location services, device tracking systems, and the list just goes on and on
The sad story of the day is that since Google’s Android is the largest shareholder of the Android market, developers who develops for Google’s platform and developers only really care about how they can get their apps to their consumers as fast and as easy as possible. To achieve that, using Google’s Play Services is the only route.
Suppose you are an app developer and you would like to use Google’s Map data in your application. Having access to Google’s Play Services Map data allows you to create apps like restaurant finders, tour guides, and type of travel apps as easy as it can be. The only problem here is that if you even have a single feature set that requires the use of map data from Google’s Play services, you are immediately reliant on Google instead of Android. Thus this also implies that your app will not work on any non-Google-approved device.
To counter Google, Amazon had to build its own version of Maps Services by licensing map data from Nokia. As we can see if any company wants to make their own version of Android they would need to either recreate or rebuild services for App developers to use in their apps. Otherwise, there is simply no incentive for developers to move from the well established Google’s Android ecosystem with complete services and tools to accommodate any apps.
Google Cloud Messaging
At Google I/O developer conference in 2013, Google released another service to its suite of Google Play Services called Google Cloud Messaging. The platform is used solely for linking the communications lines between apps and their owner’s servers. For example, when Facebook sends a notification from their server to all your devices and computer and you open Facebook on your phone, the app sends a “message” back to there server so that the notification will be marked as read on all of your device. Without the implementation of any cloud messaging users will be swamped with notifications and messages on devices everywhere.
On the one hand, Maps may not be necessary in all apps, but apps need to be able to communicate with each other from devices to devices. Again Amazon is forced to make its own version of a Google Play Service. Its version is called “Amazon Device Messaging”, and it only works with Amazon devices. Developers are then forced to test and develop their apps. More importantly if a feature that was on Google’s Cloud Messaging platform is not available on Amazon’s, the developer must play the game of jumping hoops on their own (Amazon will not play further than what it had already accomplish; it’s just too much).
Google Location Services
At the same developer conference in 2013, Google launched an entirely re-written version of Android’s state of the art location services such as Google Location Services which is again a part of Google Play Services. Additional features include Location Tracking (which fuses data locations from different sources/sensors), Geo Fencing (which lets user define areas on a map which could in fact trigger an action if the user is in those fenced areas), and Activity recognition, (which uses the accelerometer to determine whether the user is walking, biking, or driving—all without turning on the GPS.)
In App Purchasing—A Google Play Service
You’re a developer and you want to sell items within you application? Then the only way possible is with In App Purchasing, a Google Play Service. If a developer want in App-Purchasing to work in China or on a Kindle they would need to find a work around. If you are lucky, the AOSP variant developer, say Amazon, then there will be a separate In App Purchasing platform to use, but again you’ll have to test it and integrate/implement it into your app above Google’s Services.
Keeping iOS Close
Despite being competitive rivals with Apple, 90% of all Google Play services are also supported on Apple’s iOS platform. As a result, any developer building an app with Google Play Services could potentially create an iOS version very easily since most of their work of converting their app to iOS is already taken cared of by Google Play Services. It is completely understandable that developers needs to use Google Play services simply because they would like to have the potential to reach a larger portion of the market in iOS.
Surviving the Future
Unlike manufacturers who are hardware-first and service-second, Amazon is born with the Internet, an environment built on code, servers and services made to help consumers. Companies like Samsung and LG are not built from the cloud. Building an infrastructure to support apps services is simply not what hardware manufacturers are. If any company wanted to consider running a different type of Android other than Google’s, it will have to start first with replicating the Google Apps, and then recreating the necessary Apps Services that developers need to get going on the new platform. Last but not least, it will have to find a manufacturer to make the phone that will run the platform. Nearly all manufacturers are held to their throats when it comes to options for Android and it is a noose that Google will not loosen anytime soon.
However, a company must also consider the costs as well. Since Google Services only has to rely on itself, the company as a whole does not have to pay for data such as maps, and the cloud services fees. Companies running an alternative version, on the other hand, has to license its Maps data from Nokia on a per-user basis. As such coming up with an alternative version of Android is something no small firm or company would ever decide on partaking. Only someone as large as Amazon could potentially have a fighting chance against the mountains that Google has laid.
When Android started it was, for most parts, open, but the real question though is now and the future of Android. Currently Android is anything but fully open, it is a platform with walls inside and outside of the platform. Those that are in are not necessarily free to move in anyways they want, those that want to join the group, on the other hand, faces hurdles and pain step after step. For the future, things can only get tougher and tougher. From a business point of view the actions of Google is completely understandable, and from an app developer point of view they are doing a fantastic at consolidating a fragmented platform, but ethically that is not really the case. Google is literally becoming the company that it feared in the beginning, Apple, where one company rules all devices and platforms—mobile, web, and hardware.