Debunking four myths about Android, Google, and open-source

Debunking four myths about Android, Google, and open-source

Summary: Several stories recently have spread misinformation about how Google licenses Android and its services. Here's the real story on how Android licensing works with open source and Linux.


You would think that Android relationship with Linux and open source would be fairly well understood by now. However, recent articles in the tech and general press have created confusion where none ought to exist. Let me see if I can un-muddy the waters.

Let's take a look inside Android, open source and licensing.

The Guardian published a story, which they have since taken down, spreading FUD about Google, Android, Linux, open source, and licensing. The paper later published another article trying to get the Android facts right, but, well, they still don't.

Not long afterwards, Ben Edelman, Harvard Business School professor and consultant to "various companies that compete with Google,"  analyzed the Google's Mobile Application Distribution Agreement (MADA PDF Link) that was revealed in the 2011 Oracle v. Google lawsuit. When all the MADA provisions are taken together, Edelman argues, they tie Google's apps into a near seamless whole. These provisions detail how Google applications are presented on a licensed device to help Google expand into new markets.

To Edelman, this means that Google suppresses competition and harms consumers.

Really? It sounds like ordinary business practices to me.

For example, let's look at Microsoft and Red Hat. The former is a leading proprietary company, the latter is the top Linux vendor. If I buy a computer or device running Windows or Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), I expect it to come with Microsoft or Red Hat-specific services respectively, such as Windows Azure and RHEL OpenStack, for their native cloud services. (Not to mention Minesweeper in Windows' case) This isn’t cutthroat competition; it’s bundling services and tools the market wants and expects.

It irritates me to see these mistakes about how Android is made, sold, and licensed. So it's high time to spell out the facts. Let's go over the list of Android myths, shall we?

Myth #1. Google Services define Android.

Google Services are very handy. Maps, Gmail, Google Drive, Calendar, and Search are all great, but you don't have to use them. Android is a fine mobile operating system in its own right, with its built-in home screen launcher; contacts directory; dialer and phone app; and camera and gallery. You can, if you want to, add your own services to it.

Indeed, that's exactly what has happened in China. There, 270-million Android users use Android, but, thanks in part to China and Google's continuing feud, 70 percent of them don't use Google services.

Part of the confusion about services-and-platform tie-ins is that we're moving from a device-centric computing world to a cloud and services-based one. When people look at a device, they still see it as a standalone thing. That's often no longer the case. Instead, no matter who made it or what runs on it, the hardware is simply the endpoint for a variety of cloud services. That doesn't change the nature of the operating system, but it does change the user experience.

Each device has its preferred service provider: Microsoft for Windows; Apple for iOS; Google for Android; and so on. At the same time, each is usually open to other services, thanks to HTML5, and other development tools that trump native apps and services.

Myth #2. Android is not open source.

Yes, yes it is.

You can take Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code today and make your own version of Android today. If you want to, you can even take a page from CyanogenMod's book and make an Android that works with multiple devices instead of being tied to one vendor's smartphones and tablets.

Contrary to Edelman's claims, you can also build commercially viable operating systems off Android without Google Mobile Service (GMS) apps. Or, at least, you can try to. That's exactly what Mozilla is doing with Firefox OS. And, Canonical's Ubuntu Touch started out using CyanogenMod Android for its foundation. Indeed, it still uses Android during its initial boot up.

Granted, when Google is working on its latest version of Android, it has not always released beta code as early as some would like. Historically, the big hardware manufacturers, such as Samsung, HTC, and ASUS, get an early private look at Android source code. The goal is to enable these top Google hardware partners to create devices that work well with the newest version of Android as soon as it's released.

At times this has caused tension between Google and its smaller partners. This came to a head in 2011 before the release of Android 3.0, Honeycomb. This delay between the release of early Honeycomb, not ready for prime time binaries, and its corresponding source code to the broader community led to bitterness between smaller OEMs and developers and Google. Since then, Google has closed the time gap between early access to major players and general access to all Android OEMs and developers.

You can argue all you like about how open source Android is, or isn't. It's certainly not "free software" by Richard M. Stallman's definition, but it's open enough for all practical purposes.

Myth #3. Google charges licensing fees for Google Mobile Services.

No, they don't. A Google representative said, "Such stories are inaccurate. Google does not charge licensing fees for Google Mobile Services (GMS). We will not be commenting further."

Other sources, from major Android device manufacturers, agreed. One top Android smartphone and tablet vendor told me, "The Guardian story's just wrong."

That's not to say there isn't a fee to create "official" Android devices with GMS. Sources both at Google and Android OEMs confirm that Google charges no fee per se, Google does require devices to be certified; and the factories that do this certification do require a fee.

This certification fee varies from vendor to vendor, device to device, and from one version of Android to another. At the end of the accounting day, it appears to average about 75 cents to a dollar per shipped device. No one, however, would confirm this amount on the record. There is, however, no licensing fee per se.

Myth #4. Android isn't Linux.

Come on, folks! It's always been Linux.

I think this is the source of the recurring misconception: In 2010, a Google engineer put his foot in his mouth and said that Android isn't Linux. There were some technical differences which kept Android out of the main Linux tree for a while, but they were resolved.

Even at the height of the conflict, Android was still based on Linux. By March 2012, Android and Linux were re-merged into a single operating system.  I can't imagine that the two will ever fork again, not in any way, shape, or form.

What it all means in sum is that Android is indeed an open-source operating system and that anyone—yes, even you — can use it as the basis for their own devices, applications, and services. As such, it's more open than Apple or Microsoft's mobile operating systems, and it's only significant open-source competitors, are — oh the irony — were actually built on AOSP.

Related Stories:

Topics: Mobility, Android, Google, Linux, Mobile OS, Open Source, Software Development

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  • Debunking four myths about Android, Google, and open-source

    Debunked..... Got my popcorn..
    • Did SJVN misspell 'spin' as 'debunk'?

      • If you can't refute...

        John L. Ries
        • SJVN's piece makes good points

          Unfortunately, the old Buddhist saying seems to be true: "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply."

          I would just observe to SJVN that Linux is a kernel, not an operating system. Android is the operating system. Android and Linux are not the same thing. Rather, Android makes use of Linux. Never miss an opportunity to explain this to people. With only Linux, you do not have an operating system.
          • and...

            and SJVN clearly does not speak with the intention to inform.

            This is a crass whitewash.

            Parts of Android are open source, parts are not.

            Parts of MacOS are open source parts are not.

            How much and which bits are open differ, but they are both closed.

            SJVN says at one point

            "You can take Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code today and make your own version of Android today."

            You can take the open source version of Darwin and build your own MacOS today.

            But the licensing terms of both mean that you Google and Apple control what you can do with it and what you can call it.

            SVN says

            "Really? It sounds like ordinary business practices to me."

            Yes it is. I have no problem with it.

            What I have a problem with is misrepresenting it.

            Apple does not try to misrepresent MacOS is an open source operating system.

            I have no problem with Windows being proprietary. I have no problem with MacOS being proprietary. I have no problem with Android being proprietary, and I think that it's great that Linux is Open Source.

            But I do have a serious objection to the attempts to pass Android of as open source and I would seriously question SJVN's motive in propagating the spin.

            Balmer tried to pass off the Surface and Surface Pro as one product, describing a none existent product with the best features of both.

            SJVN does the same with Android and Linux.

            Android IS NOT Linux. Android is BASED ON linux. But Linux is open source. You can get ALL of it and change ALL of it and redistribute ALL of it and its still Linux.

            SJVN has been emotionally committed to Open Source and Linux for many years and seen it go nowhere.

            And all of a sudden Google builds successful proprietary OSs on Linux and SJVN seems to want to be able to claim that Linux is now here and thriving as an open source OS and maybe that that somehow validates his faith in it all the time.

            Well it isn't.

            Grow up SJVN. Linux is a decent OS and the best Open Source OS around. And a very successful embedded OS in hardware and a very successful server OS.

            And proprietary OSs based on Linux are now very successful as end user OSs.

            But Linux the open source OS still languishes as an end user OS.

            I no it's not what you want.

            But imagination and spin won't change what has happened.
            Henry 3 Dogg
          • Huh?

            What are you talking about?

            “And proprietary OSs based on Linux are now very successful as end user Oss.”
          • Darwin

            What constitutes MacOS is determined exclusively by Apple, which has the exclusive right to distribute it. But anybody can take the Darwin source code distributed by Apple and make his own operating system out of it (but he can't legally call it "MacOS").

            I'm not sure exactly what the rules are for Android in that regard. I do know that Replicant is based on the Android codebase, but it's not called "Android" and doesn't use Google services.
            John L. Ries
          • Forgot to mention

            Since portions of OSX (most importantly, the Aqua UI) are proprietary, a third party Darwin-based system (and they do exist) is going to look a lot more like a Linux distro than it is like OSX (but we would expect console execs and X clients to be binary compatible, assuming x86_64 architecture).
            John L. Ries
          • Linux is also...

            ...a family of operating systems based on the Linux kernel. Using that definition, Android is as much Linux as Fedora or Debian.
            John L. Ries
    • debunking.....FAIL

      You tried to debunk but failed by adding more misconceptions.

      For starters Android (notice the capital) is a trademark owned by Google. If you want to use the name you must license it from Google. By the way, did I mention that once you take up that license you are then forced into certain restrictions - the most draconian is that you give up the right to sell Android devices that do not have all the Google services pre-installed (installed into specific accessible locations). So yes, the android source is very open BUT the Android name is far from open.

      Its a shame that Google were allowed to trademark a common word. I am sure Bladerunner used both Android and Nexus well before Google.
      • Java

        Did you know that Java (noticed the capital) is trademarked by Oracle? If you want to use it you must license it from Oracle. When you license it you accept draconian restrictions such as not being able to use it on mobile devices (at least without taking a more expensive license). Java is a common name, I'm sure the some islands have been known by that name far longer than any piece of software (not to mention coffee).

        So the point is the question "How is this different than any other piece of software?". Do you want Android devices out there that are not compatible with the Android ecosystem?
        • Your point??

          Yes, lots of common words are taken and trademarked that shouldn't be across various industries/markets....Windows being the perfect example. My point is people confuse the openness of android source code and the closed Android trademark. The use of Nexus is very dubious and obviously inspired by the Nexus 6 androids in Bladerunner.
          Your ramblings about Java were superfluous to the argument.
          And finally I think you entirely missed the point. You cannot have Android devices incompatible with the Android ecosystem because Android devices must abide by Googles restrictions....and yes I think there should be android devices that are free to use whatever software/services they choose. Amazon Kindle Fire's are a perfect not Android.
          Please pay attention and try to understand.
          • And before you retort

            There is a BIG difference between maintaining Java compatibility across all platforms and Google having an all or nothing approach to providing its software/services to OEMs. Java'a draconian license terms are understandable to endure software reliability, reduced developer effort and prevention of hijacking it say from a company like MS. Googles licensing I'd all about cajoling OEMs into pushing Google services to customers. If Android was open like android is then OEMs should be able swap Google search with Bing or Google Maps with Nokias Mapquest with breaking the Android ecosystem.
      • Nothing to see here

        Trademarks don't have to be unusual word, not in the least. Common everyday names constitute the bulk of trademarks granted by the PTO and similar organizations throughout the world.

        What a trademark can't be is a descriptive name. So if Steve Jobs had decided to make a fruit company harvesting Apples, he couldn't have called it "Apple". Jobs Appleworks, perhaps, but not "Apple". By when a common word is applied to a product in a meaningless context (eg, "Apple" computer or "Android" for an operating system), that's called an Arbitrary Mark, and that's the typical kind of trademark. Sure, there are some, like "Kodak", which use an invented word, but that's the exception, not the rule.

        The other restriction is in areas of business.. you can't claim a trademark for a word already used in a close/related business. But you usually can if it's a different business, and the trademark is not too famous. So no, you can't make a Coke smartphone, even though the Coca-Cola company doesn't make any electronics (though they do license their name for use on electronics products). But Dove soap and Dove chocolate peacefully co-exist, so do Delta Airlines and Delta Faucets.

        Google and the Open Handset Appliance are absolutely strong-arming "Android(tm)" to protect it as a brand. If you're calling something Android, it has to be compatible with Android applications, no mucking with the APIs, etc. If that's not important, Amazon-it-up with your own fork and call it something else. You can do that and still remain compatible if you like, but that's your call.
  • the only compelling argument I've heard against android

    is that the GMS layer fixes known bugs in AOSP that Google has not put back into fixing the AOSP code itself. this is kinda crappy, but (full disclosure I don't work with android so I have no first hand experience) from what I've heard this is relatively minimal and more to do with Google not getting around to it than a malicious plan to undermine people who don't want to use GMS. sucks for anyone who wants to work with AOSP who has to go fixing old crap though.
  • So lets see

    So Microsoft got slapped when they only wanted IE put on the desktop.. People cried unfair... Google does it and it is ok... Got ya.
    • Google only wanted to put IE on the desktop?

      When was that?

      Or maybe you mean something else? Hard to tell from your post.
      My Nexus phone came with Chrome and Android browsers, and I added Firefox, so I am not sure what you are talking about.
      • On Windows Desktop

        When the monopoly war between Microsoft and the government. Microsoft was forced to all a ballot system to allow other browsers to be chosen. I am all for free market but it is funny how when it comes to Microsoft people cry foul. Yet we allow other things a pass. I am going to get off my soap box now.. :)
        • Apples and Oranges

          At the time, MS had a clear monopoly on desktop OSes. They were using that monopoly to also add a monopoly in browsers, deliberately adding non-standard "features" to their browser to ensure the lock-in, and defaulting to IE with the install only cemented that position.

          In the case of Google, at present, there are multiple viable browsers in use on the desktop (IE, Chrome and Firefox all enjoy significant market share), and multiple OSes and browsers on mobile devices.

          I am sure that when it starts to look like one browser (or OS) is becoming a monopoly, then the court (and my) position will change.
          • It is the same.

            It's all about enforcing users to use your technology.
            MS pre-installed IE and even made it mandatory by including it in the Windows base code. Most people will use what is pre-installed if it works for them and MS feared at the time that he browser was becoming more important than the OS.
            Google forces OEMs to pre-install their browser with the same intent. Most people will use the pre-installed most prominent browser.