Google and Android: here comes the lockdown

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© Pavel Ignatov

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.

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Is Android about to change? / © ANDROIDPIT

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.


Fragmentation is the f-word that's dogged Android for years now. / © ANDROIDPIT

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.

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Has Google gone from sticking it to The Man to becoming The Man? / © ANDROIDPIT

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.

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  • Vinicius. G. Romero Jun 18, 2016 Link to comment

    I'm unsure what to think here...
    If one were to be more specific, what would be the pros and cons?

  • Don Abrahamsen Jun 17, 2016 Link to comment

    I think im ok with a Google lock down. I was Total Apple for years, but there is big difference between lock down and Lock In as Apple tries to do. My last 3 phones have been Moto X only because you have no memory expansion with Nexus.

  • CJ Brown Jun 14, 2016 Link to comment

    It's simple -- give the Customers what they want!
    let US decide what apps we want to keep or remove from our Android Smartphones!
    Deliver OS updates reasonably (90 days after implementation)!
    Guarantee your electronic products against manufacturing flaws!
    If it's not broken, don't fix it!

  • Dave Price Jun 14, 2016 Link to comment

    While there may be some future legal need for Google to abandon Android(Java), they don't need to do so to eliminate fragmentation. They simply need to bake in the hooks to customize more of the OS through apps (i.e. a Notification drawer app that looks like TouchWiz, or a dialer app that looks like Sense, etc.) That should satisfy the OEMs so they can sufficiently differentiate their phone's look and feel, but it also means users can go "stock" by using the Google versions of those apps.

    At that point, Google is free to update the OS without manufacturer cooperation because if one of the crappy OEM apps no longer functions, the Google supplied app will. Hardware support/drivers would have to be coordinated somehow. It's in Google's best interest to maintain those drivers, so they should do so - at least for the major players. If someone buys a no-name Android device, they might be stuck in fragmentation land.

    That being said, I'd be surprised if Google could reboot their mobile OS as something different and recreate what happened with Android. I think it's more likely that the OEMs and Oracle partner up to maintain AOSP and squeeze Google out of the picture.

  • José Furtado Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    I simply cannot imagine having to put up with all that bunch of bloatware apps I don't need and not being able to temporarily freeze whichever apps I've downloaded and keep using RAM even when I'm not running them!

  • itprolonden Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    Wouldn't matter that much to me.

  • Elvis s Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    Well, then bye-bye android. If they stop it somehow, they have to develop a whole new os. Because Google can't use the Linux kernel then make it closed source. In fact, Google won't be able to use a ton of libraries, since to use them, you also need to open-source the project containing them. Unless Google just builds some Chrome os thing and use that... (chrome is from chromium which is released under a bsd license...)

  • Marcus Ambleside Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    "sticking to the letter rather than the spirit of the law to do something legal but bad"

    The law has no spirit. Laws are carefully crafted and worded. If google has stuck to the meaning, then they've done nothing wrong. Oracle should word its licences with greater precision.

  • Jeff Campbell Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    If they lock it down and OEM manufactures can't install their versions (i.e. Samsung Touchwiz, HTC Sense...) Then Google should get with all these OEM's and see what they are producing that is different and start implementing it into stock android. If the Samsung Camera app seems the best then make that stock... Or have the OEM's put all their apps on the play store and we can d/l what we want and totally customize our phones. I like the samsung camera app better than google especially with it's Pro mode. But I like the Google calendar app better than samsung. So locking it down is not a bad thing. iOS is successful being locked down and keeping up to date. They just limit on what stock apps you can replace as default. If Google allows all stock apps to be replaced as default then Android would be the ultimate winner here. And most apps are already replaceable. Also google can force carriers to get rid of bloatware and let us download which carrier apps we want.

  • Jack Smith Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    This is the fault of the EU. They are forcing Google to do this. They give away the source code to the most popular OS in the world and the EU goes after them? Simply crazy.

  • Aufar Ramadhan Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    Let's see what happens then. If it's positive then I'll buy another newer Nexus. But if it's negative, I'll root my phone until full destruction.

  • Kunal Narang Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    I'm already thinking about moving to a Nexus and this justifies it.

  • Carmelo Rivera Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    Android is for people that love freedom and choice. But its fragmentation problem is too big and getting out of control. I thought I'd never buy a Nexus, because I love to customize my Android device to oblivion until it's unrecognizable. Even my "Apple" friends knowing that I hate Apple, told me to get a Nexus. OEMs leave Google no choice than to close Android, because these manufacturers don't want to update their devices because they rather sell you another phone. So I bought a Nexus 6P to get the latest updates and still customize the hell out of it.

  • Anthony Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    Worst case scenario, the user installs a custom launcher off the play store if they don't like stock. If the latest updates come to everyone at the same time like Chrome, lots of people will be happy, including me

  • storm Jun 13, 2016 Link to comment

    I've thought similar things. I'll abandon Android at that point and wait for open source to fill the gap

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