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

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.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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