Being open source is killing Android

Most of Android's problems stem from the fact that it is an open source operating system.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Quick! List the major problems facing Android?

Done? OK, good.

Chances are high that you said that the biggest problems facing Android are fragmentation (too many different versions and device form-factors), and the fact that users don't get updates in a timely fashion.

OK, another question. What can be done to fix this?

I'm betting that you said little can be done. After all, Android is all about being open, which means that once Google has released a new version, the OEMs and carriers are free to tinker with it to their heart's content. That then results in both the fragmentation (OEMs loading the code onto any and every device form factor they can think of), and the problems with updates (Google can't push Android direct to devices because heavens knows what modifications and tinkering have been done, both cosmetic and structural, to the code).

The updates are a real sticking point. Apple can get a new release of iOS onto about 85 percent of devices in a year, while Google struggles to hit double-digit adoption in that time. And it takes about four years for a release to fully penetrate the ecosystem.

Four years is a crazy long time in tech.

Android is a practical demonstration of the sort of mess that Linux would have become if it had enjoyed widespread popularity with hardware OEMs. Someone, somewhere has to be in charge, and put the interests of the platform over profit margins and market share.

So, is the Android ecosystem destined to always be a mess?

Perhaps not.

Six of the best Android smartphones: June 2016

One possible exit for Google out of all this chaos would be to take control of Android itself and move the project from being an open source project and turn it into a proprietary project.

"Whoa?!?!?!" I hear you say. "But isn't being open source a cornerstone to Android's success?"

It was, but I don't think that's the case anymore.

In the early days, there's no doubt that Google needed the OEMs just as much as the OEMs needed Google, because building a quality smartphone was no trivial matter and Google needed the expertise that firms such as Samsung, LG, Motorola, and Sony could bring to the table. Now a firm like Foxconn can easily knock together a quality smartphone, and do it cheaper than the major OEMs can.

And if you think that Google can't do this, well, they already are. As analyst Richard Windsor points out, much of the new stuff being added to Android doesn't go into the open source AOSP (Android Open Source Project) code base, but instead into Google Mobile Services.

And, as Windsor points out, Google could point to its battle with Oracle as the catalyst for making the switch from open source to proprietary, if it needed an excuse.

And a proprietary version of Android wouldn't mean the demise of handsets from the big names such as Samsung and LG and such. After all, Google could license them the ability to use the code just as it now licenses access to Google Mobile Services.

After all, what would companies such as Samsung have to lose by switching from Android to a proprietary platform? OK, maybe a bit of freedom, but the advantages of being able to push updates to users, as well as reducing how much effort it has to put into customizing the code, would outweigh any of the downsides. Any maker who couldn't offer users quick access to updates would be skating on thin ice as soon as one competitor could offer that feature.

And I don't see carriers complaining that much either. I know they like to customize and add their own branding/bloatware to Android, but they're hardly in a position to tell Google to take a hike.

And Google could always build a mechanism into the OS that would allow both OEMs and carriers to customize and tweak the OS, without that affecting updates in any way.

There could be some other positive side effects for Google.

The first is that it would cut off companies like Amazon from having access to a free operating system. That would probably result in Amazon working on its own code, but it would add to its costs.

Then, it could also mean that the patent licensing fees that Microsoft has negotiated with hardware makers, which pull in billions of dollars every year, would become moot. Sure, Google would no doubt have to come to some arrangement with Microsoft, but Google would be far less of a pushover than the hardware makers appear to have been, which could mean a reduction in how much Microsoft generates in fees.

Licensing would give Google greater control over the hardware that Android was loaded onto. No more junk that can barely run the OS. No more devices being released running years-old releases with no hope of an update.

In short, Android has become a mess, and the landscape has changed such that there's no reason for Google to keep on making an open source operating system, especially one that the competition can leverage.

Best laptops for work and play (June 2016 edition)

See also:

Editorial standards