We are attempting to take Android away from Google
Kirt McMaster, CEO of CyanogenMod.
In case you didn’t know, CyanogenMod is arguably the most popular version of android among android enthusiasts. It is a firmware replacement for specific android devices that is based on the android open-source project. It offers more features, higher reliability and better performance over android builds released by vendors and carriers such as Google, T-Mobile and HTC.
It isn’t the first time McMaster has made ‘enthusiastic’ comments about Google’s stranglehold on Android. McMaster has lofty goals of an Android development environment that is devoid of limitations to developers code reaching the Android core. Google Would tell you that it puts these limitations in place for Security reasons, but doesn’t have those same restrictions for its own applications like Google Now.
Android sans Google: The Vision
At a “The next phase of Android” conference in San Francisco last Thursday, The CyanogenMod CEO let it all hang out:
We’re making a version of Android that is more open so we can integrate with more partners so their servicers can be tier one services, so startups working on [artificial intelligence] or other problems don’t get stuck having you have to launch a stupid little application that inevitably gets acquired by Google or Apple. These companies can thrive on non-Google Android
Those are some pretty lofty goals. While I certainly applaud his enthusiasm, a task like this does have some important requirements. Requirements like revamped security, building your own ecosystem, and increased maintenance and support. While none of these concepts are alien to CyanogenMod operations, the level of effort needed for a forked version of android to have a community of users to support it couldn’t be achieved without serious commitment, serious intent and some serious bucks.
If you are an Android user think about how many different ways you use your device everyday. The majority of those functions you just thought of are application based. Now imagine what would happen if someone deleted those apps. Not a big deal right? You would just reinstall then via the Google PlayStore.
But what if they deleted that one too?
The effort required for a forked Android distribution to be a successful and thriving strategy for a business is nothing to be dismissive of. Just ask Amazon. It is difficult. There is much that needs to be reconstituted to get it to the point of features and functionalities it has on the devices you see for sale, like the ones of the Google PlayStore. Some of you might be surprised when you learn that it is designed to be that way. One might even say that Android forks are designed to be hobbled like crippleware, so they fail. Does Google ‘change’ android if a branched fork scenario occurs? That depends on what you believe ‘Android ‘ is, or more importantly – what it is not.
Think for a moment, about Android as a product. If someone handed you the source code and you had the tools, could read and follow a few steps and had an environment running to build Android for a hardware platform that you designed (because we both know you are a closet genius), and just built the first article perfectly. There are 3 easy steps you need to accomplish to make sure the mobile device you just put together is Android compatible. They are:
- Obtain the Android software source code.
- Comply with the Android Compatibility Definition Document.
- Pass the Compatibility Test Suite (CTS).
Ok so check. Check….check. Great job! You have a perfectly compatible device ready for an OS flash. You initiate the build for the device….done. It boots for the first time. Let’s pretend the annoying first run tutorial never existed….or perhaps you thought ahead and made some modifications to disable or remove it (always thinking ahead aren’t you….great job on that) it boots to the home screen. What are you expecting it to look like ?
The Google PlayStore is missing. Sheesh….ya Rookie! How are your users going to get at all that application goodness without the application goodness button? You must have missed a step. Well, it looks like you are going to make sure you don’t have anything that constitutes unspecified varieties of legal and business reasons. Can they be any more vague ?
Closed + Open = CLOPEN
I won’t argue that Android, the way Google releases the source, has open-source components. There is a lot of subjectivity that isn’t discussed on the AOSP website. It’s like that purposefully. This leaves developers and users and analysts in a position to make their own judgements on what Android is or is not. If android is a mobile operating system that includes a digital distribution system for Applications, then the source should include it. If Android does not have a digital distribution system, it’s useless. No one is going to use a static operating system that has no way to augment capability with applications.
The good thing (or bad thing) is that unlike iOS, Androd doesn’t have a requirement to use an App Store to install the .apk files that compile the applications and place them on the platform. You can can side load them with a another device or a removable storage which is very inconvenient, or you can deploy them from a website. The increased security risk of requiring the user to consciously degrade the Android security component that prevents it from installing .apk’s from unknown sources might not be worth the the support required to fix more Android malware
So to maintain security, and create the UX that will be convenient and provides an environment that is conducive to users buying applications…especially on impulse or when bored…you need an App Store. If you aren’t interested in distributing Android in accordance with what Google says or you aren’t interested in allowing Google to harvest user datapoint generated by your users, Google isn’t interested in your needs. You get Android without GooglePlay. Android Useless .
In real Open-source communities, the decision to project-fork software happens when members of its community develop a schismatic vision for the project yet both sides remain committed to its continued development. A community decides to a fork a distribution when there is enough support for an alternate version to be distributed. This is the beauty (or curse) of open source code: if you don’t like where it’s headed, feel free to make it better from here, just do it somewhere else.
While Android is an open-source mobile operating system and you are free to have access to the source, that doesn’t mean Google ever intended for anyone to really use it that way. The OS is open. Google Apps are proprietary with restrictions and requirements that some might describe as ‘Apple-ish’.
Google doesn’t allow the PlayStore to be distributed on any deployed build of android without authorization. That is the gatekeeper mechanism: Without an application repository, you don’t have developers building anything for your users. Without a library of solid applications you probably won’t have many users, and without users buying applications, there isn’t a viable business model for sustainability if you are a business with a core competence of deploying modifications of Operating System firmware.
Unless you are going to develop applications and give them away for free and aren’t concerned with revenue needed to drive ongoing development and maintenance, user access to an application library is essentially required. You need to attract users to the platform. Operating systems need a community of users to establish its relevance and drive its sustainability. It needs an active developer community to make software that drives growth in the number of users. It needs an ecosystem that provides an environment where users want to support developers by purchasing software, and developers want to support their users in good faith.
So, I’m sure when people heard this blasphemy in McMaster’s rant, they probably took his intent as buzz feed for the Android blog and news engine. At least until he started specifying dates and platform partnership possibilities. He said the Cyanogen would be releasing its own application distribution store im 18 months. He also stated that with a partnership with Aviate Launcher, he could provide the development environment platform for developers to offer Tier one services like Google does in its applications.
The most important thing that those who decided to do some reporting on this, isn’t the change in distribution authority. It’s the complete shift in philosophy and the abandonment of Google’s purpose for Android. For Google, android is the means for user datapoint collection, for trending and selling user-generated data to advertisers. Advertisers are Google Customers.
Kirt McMaster sounds like he would rather have Android users and its Development Community as Cyanogen customers and partners.
When I contemplate that vision of Android, where users are supported instead of harvested, and where the purpose of Android is progression guided by the needs of the user community, not for ad revenue generation…I have hope for Android. I hope that someday the Android community will stop being used and start being customers.
If McMaster can deliver on what he says he can in the time frame he set for himself, and he gets the partnerships in place that he says he needs to achieve a Google-less Android it won’t be a matter of hope.
It will simply be a matter of time.