Google’s control over Android

When discussing problems with Android devices, you can often find people who claim, that most (if not all) problems with Android devices are caused by the manufacturers of said devices and Google isn’t to blame. Geeks like to justify this by saying that Google has no control over Android and devices that are made with it, i.e. manufacturers have the freedom to do anything with it. While this does sound plausible with all the “open” bullshit that’s coming from Google, the reality is very different.

Even though officially Android is a free open-source project, that is developed by the Open Handset Alliance and isn’t directly controlled by Google, the company has more than enough means of indirect control, plus the whole project itself isn’t really being developed like most other open-source projects. While almost every major open-source project is developed by (or with significant help of) its community, Android is mostly developed by Google in-house, taking no input from the community and releasing the source code sometime after. So, how does Google control Android? Mainly by controlling that, what makes an Android device a true Android smartphone, i.e. the “Android” branding and Google’s applications.

Despite Android being an “open-source project”, device manufacturers can’t use the “Android” trademark (which belongs to Google), unless Google certifies that the device complies with their Compatibility Definition Document. If Android smartphones sell well because they are “Android” smartphones (as opposed to, for example, Windows Phone 7 smartphones), which is regularly claimed by different people, then device manufacturers will not be able to achieve such large volumes of sales without the “Android” branding. Therefore Android branding could be considered an essential element of the platform and it’s success.

As with the Android branding, manufacturers can’t put Google’s closed-sourced applications (Google Maps, YouTube, GMail and even the Android Market) on their devices “just like that” — they need to be directly licensed from Google. The license isn’t termless and needs to be regularly re-signed. And even signing the license isn’t enough to get Google’s apps — manufacturers need to get Google’s written approval for each new device. What’s more interesting, in order for a specific device to get a license for bundling Google Apps, the said device must pass the so-called “Android Compatibility Test Suite” and also meet the “Android Compatibility Definition”, both of which can be changed by Google at will, preventing any device from hitting the market. And what Android devices without Google’s apps were successful in the market? That’s right — none of them. Like the branding, Google’s apps are an essential element of the Android platform and it’s success.

So, by releasing the core OS as open-source software, but keeping control of what’s important (the essential elements of the platform), Google has retained an iron grip over it’s platform. And with the device manufacturers strongly tied to Android as their only hope to sell smartphones, Google has more then enough influence over them. Google can make manufacturers do what it’s wants — the sad part is that updates (and other Android’s pain-points, like bloatware) aren’t any of them.

Thoughts on tech