Here we go again: Android is, apparently, not open

Another day, another fear-mongering ‘Android is closed!’-article at Ars Technica. After Peter Bright’s article last week (sharply torn to shreds by Dianne Hackborn), we now have an article with the scary title “New Android OEM licensing terms leak; ‘open’ comes with a lot of restrictions“.

The title itself is already highly misleading, since one, the licensing terms aren’t new (they’re from early 2011 – that’s three years old), and two, they’re not licensing terms for Android, but for the suite of Google applications that run atop Android.

This article makes the classic mistake about the nature of Android. It conflates the Android Open Source Project with the suite of optional proprietary Google applications, the GMS. These old, most likely outdated licensing terms cover the Google applications, and not the open source Android platform, which anyone can download, alter, build and ship. Everyone can build a smartphone business based on the Android Open Source Project, which is a complete smartphone operating system.

Ars Technica is really trying to drive home the point that AOSP without Google applications is useless, a “barebones husk”, but reality proves them wrong. Many, many Android devices sold in China are AOSP(-based) without Google’s suite of applications. Closer to home (at least, for Americans), we have Amazon, who has been quite successful with their own AOSP-based platform. And closer to home for us OSNews readers – the entire custom ROM scene is based on AOSP, and CyanogenMod alone boasts impressive usage statistics. Every custom ROM (except for those based on stock OEM ROMs) is AOSP, with a certain level of modification by ROM developers, after which the user itself must install the Google suite of proprietary applications.

Despite Ars’ – dare I say it – ‘FUD’, Android’s openness is evidenced by probably dozens, if not hundreds of millions of users every single day. It’s mind-boggling how people can claim Android is not open just because of the fact that Google’s optional suite of applications is proprietary and needs to be licensed. It’s like claiming the Piazza della Repubblica is closed because there’s a 1 meter-wide fence somewhere.

Even the terms prohibiting the licensees from forking Android are nothing new. They have been part of the Open Handset Alliance from day one – which was founded in 2007. In other words, OEMs like Samsung, HTC, and others knew exactly what they were getting into when they joined the OHA, so trying to come to their imaginary defense now seems a bit hollow, at best.

The claims that Android isn’t open are just as asinine and insipid as the claims that iOS only sells because of marketing or the Apple brand. There are certainly a lot of issues with Android, and Google has a very fine line to walk along, but that does not mean Android is not open.

This, however, does not mean there aren’t possibly worrying trends in AOSP’s recent history. Dianne Hackborn’s thorough debunking of the earlier Ars Technica article, for instance, states this:

So, GMS is Google’s proprietary code implemented on top of Android for interacting with Google’s services. There is nothing nefarious about it being proprietary — it is interacting with Google’s proprietary back-end services, so of course it is proprietary.

This appears benign, but the problem was that as more and more AOSP parts were duplicated in GMS, their AOSP counterparts withered. This was a worrying trend that Google seems to have bucked – many GMS applications are now based on their AOSP counterparts (Hangouts vs. Messages being the exception). The company could take the wind out of a lot of these articles by making sure this stays that way.

Even then, the open source community and third-party Android developers have done a lot of great things here too, with things like open source camera applications and music players based on AOSP code, but much improved. So, even if Google completely dropped the ball on many of the AOSP versions of stock Android applications, the open source community will – and already has – picked up the slack.

The second possibly worrying trend is a set of APIs called the Google Play Services, which are part of the GMS. Over the recent years, I came under the impression that it had become virtually impossible to develop an Android application without using Play Services, but when I actually took a look at what Play Services provides, and just like Dianne Hackborn stated, Play Services really do deal with just Google’s backend cloud services, like Google Maps, Google+, Google Play Games, and so on.

While it seems perfectly possible to develop applications that do not support any of the Play Services, things like location and such (sadly) have weaseled their way into many applications, whether they belong there or not. This means that even though it’s not necessary for most applications to depend on the Play Services, many popular ones do so all the same. So, even though the Play Services don’t contain much of what I would call core APIs for an operating system, they are still quite important. In fact, all of the Google applications depend on them.

I don’t have any issues with Google’s applications being part of the GMS, but when APIs that most applications depend on become part of the GMS, we’re treading in much muddier waters. I wonder if Google will be able to resist the temptation of shoving more and more APIs into Play Services in the future. It’s a tempting way to get more control over Android, and since Google is a company, I don’t trust them in any way to not do so. Time will tell.

Articles like the ones at Ars tend to focus a lot on the the licensing terms for the GMS, but this is a separate issue that has no bearing on whether or not AOSP is open. Why? Because these terms have absolutely nothing to do whatsoever in any way ever and ever with AOSP. That’s it. GMS is not AOSP. AOSP is not GMS. End of story.

The terms themselves seem to be mostly beneficial to users, developers, and OEMs (at least, for now) as they bring the OHA’s goals into practice and ensure Android is a coherent platform. Unlike what some might think, Android is actually very coherent – no other mobile platform has ever provided both developers and users alike with such a consistent operating system on so many different kinds of mobile devices. As with the Play Services, we’ll have to see how Google proceeds with this in the future. They’re a company, so we have to remain ever vigilant.

In any case, all this in no way negate the very simple fact that AOSP is a complete open source mobile operating system, used by dozens of millions – if not hundreds of millions, thanks to China – people all around the world. In addition, any visit to XDA will make it clear just how healthy the AOSP development community is, with literally hundreds of different AOSP ROMs which are updated every single day. CM alone is used by millions of people, so it’s hard to discard it as a mere geek thing. And, lest we forget, there’s Amazon.

So, let’s get this straight once and for all. People do not buy iPhone and iPads because of marketing or the Apple brand – they buy them because they’re genuinely good devices that are an optimal fit for many, many people. Similarly, the GMS being proprietary does not mean AOSP is a closed, “barebones husk”. Arguments like these are idiotic, have no basis in reality, and serve no purpose.


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