Google and Android Open Source
What's the deal with the Android Open Source Project? You can go to source.android.com
and clone it. And the license
is Apache! So you can make your changes, install them on your own phone,
and sell it! You don't have to share with Google!
The Android kernel is Linux; that part is covered by the GPLv2. The
Apache license applies to all the Android-specific stuff.
But somehow this isn't happening. There is exactly one commercial
offering of AOSP code on a non-Google-licensed device: the Amazon Kindle
Fire (which I had no idea was Android). Frankly, nobody buys a Kindle to
have an Android device.
How does Google keep everyone in line, and sell its licenses? What keeps
every phone maker from cloning their own fork of AOSP?
Ars Technica's Ron Amadeo wrote about this in 2013, and the article was
recently updated: arstechnica.com/gadgets/2018/07/googles-iron-grip-on-android-controlling-open-source-by-any-means-necessary.
Google started AOSP a few months after the first iPhone came out in 2007.
Google clearly understood that mobile devices were the future, and that it
would be all too easy for Google search to disappear. Google was probably
paying Apple a lot more than they were happy with to have Google Search be
featured on that first iPhone.
Android was open source because Google had no hardware platform. They had
no mobile presence whatsoever. So they priced it to move, so to speak.
Non-Apple alternatives at the time were the Blackberry OS and Symbian,
started by Nokia. (Remember Symbian? Me neither.)
Tim Bray, former Googler, asked, during his interview with Google VP Vig
Gundotra, asked "why is Google doing Android?". This was the (from memory,
years later) answer
The iPhone is really good. The way things are going,
Apple’s going to have a monopoly on Internet-capable mobile devices. That
means they’ll be the gatekeepers for everything, including
advertising, saying who can and can’t, setting prices, taking a cut.
That’s an existential threat to Google. Android doesn’t have to
win, to win. It just has to get enough market so there’s a diverse and
competitive mobile-advertising market.
Today Android has an 80% market share. So maybe Google regrets the
From the beginning, not everything was open source. Google had their
- Google Talk
Some of these may have equivalents in AOSP, but they are more-or-less
abandoned. And you can use a web browser to get at most of the above, but
that's not as slick.
If you have an Android phone, note the Google Search app. You can open
Chrome instead, and go to google.com, or even create a desktop shortcut to
google.com. But then you don't get the Google Assistant, or any voice
response, or other handy features. (You do get to open selected
search results in new tabs, which is oddly missing from the Google Search
So this left Google with a carrot to phone makers: "license with us and
you get all this cool stuff". The licensing is believed to be pretty
cheap, if not free; the point is that it comes with strings. If you
license with Google, you must use Google's flavor of
Android. No open-source improvements allowed.
The AOSP Music player was a plain-vanilla player. The Google Play Music
app is quite different, with hooks into streaming services, and places to
AOSP has a Calendar app too. But it doesn't sync to the Cloud. The
closed-source Google Calendar is much slicker.
Google even has a proprietary swipeable keyboard app.
Ditto the Messages (SMS) app and even the Camera.
Lock In, Lock Out
Still, for a phone manufacturer to create its own clone of AOSP, so far
all it has to do is update the various Google apps. Amazon did that.
Samsung has its own version of all the Google apps. How hard can it be?
Google has a few more hoops.
First and foremost, if you as a manufacturer have a license to
manufacture Google-licensed Android phones, then you are probably
a member of the Open Handset Alliance. Getting a license without being a
member of the OHA might be possible, but it's not clear anyone has ever
done it. And a big part of your OHA agreement requires that you
will not manufacture any non-Google-licensed phones. That
leaves a phone company with a big problem, as most phone sellers are not
their own manufacturers (Samsung is).
In China, stock Google Android is not allowed. Alibaba has an AOSP clone,
called Aliyun. Acer was hired to make Aliyun phones, and Google told them
to stop. Acer did. This may have changed; a more recent Google ToS says
Devices may only be distributed if all Google
Applications authorized for distribution in the applicable territory are
pre-installed on the device.
Since no Google Applications are authorized in China, Acer may now be ok.
It is not clear whether Acer is in fact making Aliyun phones, however.
Amazon had to look very hard to find a manufacturer for its AOSP Kindle
Fire. But then, Amazon has resources.They finally found Quanta (not
exactly a familiar name).
Samsung has the alternative apps in place, and is probably the only
Android phone maker in this position. So they could quit. But
that would mean that Samsung would have to stop making Google-Android
phones immediately. If a future Galaxy S-37 is AOSP-based, then
no more sales of Google-Android S9's.
Also, customers like the Google apps.
Skyhook has built a competing location-service app; like Google's when
GPS is off, it is believed to determine your location from nearby Wi-Fi
access points. Some phone makers tried to drop Google's location service
(built into the Android infrastructure; it is not an app) in favor of
Skyhook's. Google made them stop. Skyhook's lawsuit
is still pending. (Skyhook is also suing Google for patent infringment.)
Google has one more line of defense: you must license the Google version
of Android if you want access to the Google Play Store, that is, the app
store. Amazon has built their own app store for the Fire Kindle. Nobody
else has tried.
It's not even as simple as contacting 100,000 app devs and asking for
their app to be included in your store too. Most apps use at least one
Google proprietary API. That means most apps simply will not run on a
vanilla AOSP device. Here are a few hard-to-go-without APIs:
- Google maps API
- Google cloud messaging (for Notifications)
- Location API
- In-app purchasing
There's even a games API, Play Games, that most game devs end up using.
One final sting: most of Google's APIs are in fact supported on iPhones.
So using Google makes things a lot easier for devs; often it
makes the Android and iOS versions almost the same.
Amazon maintains a list of alternative APIs for Kindle Fire devs at developer.amazon.com/docs/app-submission/migrate-existing-app.html.
They've had their work cut out for them.
Bottom line: between the Google apps, the manufacturing rule, and access
to the App Store, nobody dares to leave the fold. Not even Samsung, who is
clearly best positioned to do so (Samsung does have their own App Store.
It is annoying as heck, as their store does app updates independently of
Margrethe Vestager and the EU fine
[Roughly "VES-dae-ya"] Why the EU thinks Google is engaging in
anticompetitive behavior may now be a little clearer. The EU complaint
focuses on two primary things Android phone makers are forced to install:
- Google Chrome
- Google Search app
Around 2000, Microsoft was sued by the US Dept of Justice for antitrust
violations because they required manufacturers of Windows computers to
install Internet Explorer. Microsoft agreed to allow competing browsers,
while at the same time trying to integrate IE into the desktop.
(They later abandoned that plan.) Sun workstations, meanwhile, were all
shipped with a browser made by Sun. (Mosaic was also available. That's not
Mozilla; Mozilla was named because it is the Mosaic Killer.)
For a manufacturer to require the installation of B when a customer (the
phone maker) wants to install A is called tying. It is
generally forbidden under antitrust law.
Under US law, the government must not just show that Google's competitors
were harmed by Google's tying rules. They must also show that consumers
were harmed. This can be difficult.The FTC considered action against
Google in 2012, following the recommendations of an internal committee,
but Google was a major supporter of the Obama administration.
One theory is that Google is in trouble because they made
Android open-source, but have schemed mightily to prevent meaningful
adoption of AOSP on phones. This isn't quite true; Google would be in
trouble if they simply licensed Android as a commercial project.
Apparently the EU received multiple complaints from US phone
manufacturers (are there any?) objecting to Google's terms. The usual
complaint was that it was the App Store (Google Play Store) that was the
absolutely-must-have app, and that to get that, the vendors had to install
Chrome and Google Search.
So the EU case really is about loosening Google's tight grip on Android,
but not necessarily about unlocking AOSP.
DuckDuckGo greeted the EU fine
The Chrome browser is based on Chromium, which is open source. Is Google
being generous here? Google outsiders apparently do contribute code. But
there is reason to believe that Google pushes Chrome in order to control
the browser advertising platform.
Nobody uses Chromium per se, but all other browsers except
Firefox use the Blink browser engine (formerly Webkit) on which
Chrome and Chromium are based. Most of Blink is licensed under BSD, making
it easy for other browser vendors to use. (A few library parts are
licensed under the LGPL, but that's ok as other browser vendors don't tend
to change that.)
With this in mind, this typical
BSD line becomes a little more significant:
* Neither the name of Google Inc. nor the names of its
// contributors may be used to endorse or promote
products derived from
// this software without specific prior written
If you make a Blink-based browser, you basically cannot advertise the
fact that it's based on Google's work.
that enable additional user surveillance, and thus enhance Google's
dominance of browser-based advertising.
WebRTC is one such new feature that, while fully supported by the more
privacy-focused Firefox, also does expose some elements of the user's
On the spectrum of browser loyalty, from users to advertisers, Google's
Chromium project has done a lot to shift the balance towards advertisers.
Despite making the source code available,
Google has often certainly seemed to be gunning for Firefox, the
only serious browser today that is not based on the Blink
engine. In a series of twitter posts, Johnathan Nightingale describes how
Google put the muscle on Firefox (twitter.com/johnath/status/1116871231792455686?lang=en).
When the Firefox team started working with Google, there was no Chrome.