On Forking Android

Terrific piece by Peter Bright on the notion that Microsoft should abandon Windows Phone in favor of Android:

If Android were an open platform in the way that Firefox OS or Ubuntu for smartphones were an open platform, the forking suggestion would make more sense. The AOSP/GMS split wouldn’t exist. Everything would be in AOSP, so piecemeal substitution of back-end services without having to reinvent vast tracts of code and without any major compatibility implications would be practical.

But it isn’t. Not only is it not this kind of an open platform, but Google is actively working to make it functionally less open with each new release. The result is that a forker has to make a choice: they can give Google control and get the all the upsides of the platform, or they can snatch control from Google and get almost none of them.

Update: Two interesting comments on the Bright’s piece. The first, from “wffurr”, claims something I’ve seen reported before, but which I’m not sure Google has ever confirmed:

You left out Google’s licensing agreements with hardware manufacturers, which prohibits them from shipping incompatible (read non-GMS containing) Android devices based on AOSP code AND GMS devices. Basically, a hardware OEM will have all GMS applications rejected if they build an AOSP-based device for a different software vendor. Amazon has had to shop around a lot to find an OEM for the Kindle — it has to be an OEM with no ambitions of becoming their own Android brand.

If true, this rule wouldn’t affect any plans Microsoft might have for a Nokia Android fork, because Nokia doesn’t make or want to make GMS (“Google experience”) Android phones. But this rule would pose a problem for a company like Samsung, if they wanted to shift away from GMS and move toward their own fork of Android. They’d have to do it all at once — they couldn’t ease into with just a few devices.

Second, this lengthy comment — an article unto itself, length-wise — from Google employee Dianne Hackborn, who works on the Android team. Hackborn took Bright’s piece as a critique of Google’s motives. I took it more along the lines of making the case for just how much work it entails to fork Android and create a top-tier ecosystem.

Sunday, 9 February 2014