CyanogenMod CEO McMaster said some interesting things recently.
To remove all doubts right from the get go, here’s how McMaster introduced himself: “I’m the CEO of Cyanogen. We’re attempting to take Android away from Google.” Asked to detail his vision, McMaster explained that Cyanogen wants to provide a version of Android that is open down to its core, that partners can use to build highly integrated services, in a way that is not possible right now with Google’s Android.
Well, either McMaster has no idea what he’s talking about, or he’s purposefully being disingenuous. It’s most likely the latter, since he’s got something to sell.
Of course, all the things McMaster claims his company will make possible with Android are already possible today, have been possible for years, and are actually actively being done all over the world. There are dozens of millions – possibly hundreds of millions – of users using Google-less Android all over the world; in China, Russia, the US, and beyond. Android’s openness makes it possible to replace all of Google’s applications and services with those from another company, vendor, or provider. Even you can do it! Just download Yandex.Kit, for instance.
The confusion seems to stem from people conflating Google Apps/Play Services with Android. This is an easy mistake to make for those not familiar with Android. Android itself (AOSP) is completely open source, and freely available to everyone to use as a base for a competing platform. Countless of Chinese companies, Russia’s Yandex, Nokia, Amazon, and others have attracted millions and millions of users this way.
In contrast, Google has a lot of control over Google Apps/Play Services and keeps them (mostly) proprietary. However, despite a lot of rattling of chains from Apple bloggers and Ars Technica, Google Apps and Play Services are by no means a crucial, unmissable part of Android, and they, by no means, make Android “unforkable”. In fact, if you look at the APIs currently part os Play Services, they are all strictly related to Google Services (as the name implies), and not Android itself (e.g. they don’t deal with things like hardware access).
On top of that, despite Google Apps/Play Services being proprietary, they are “freely” available; Google basically employs a gedoogbeleid concerning their availability, and allows users of custom ROMs and non-Google Android to download them. My Jolla phone, which doesn’t even run Android in the first place, has Google Apps/Play Services installed.
I am not happy with the fact that the Google Apps are proprietary, mostly because I see no need for them to be as such. Google could win a lot of goodwill by opening them up again, but Google being a company, it’s unlikely they will ever do so. Play Services are a bit of a different story; while I would certainly love for them to be open as well, I understand (though not necessarily agree) Google wants to maintain control over the access to their very servers.
The article makes another common mistake: it claims that Android manufacturers are not allowed to release Android forks. This is based on leaked 2011 licensing terms covering the Google Apps/Play Services. However, despite these leaked terms, there are several manufacturers who release Android devices both with and without Google services; Huawei and Explay are good examples of that (they both sell regular Android phones with Google services, but also devices in Russia that use Yandex.Kit). This means that either the licensing terms from 2011 are outdated, or (more likely) they are custom, and do not apply to every manufacturer. In any case, the blanket statement that all manufacturers must choose between nothing but Android with Google services, or no Android services at all is clearly not true.
In any case, I’m sure McMaster knows all this just fine – you can’t be the CEO of CyanogenMod without said understanding – which makes these comments all the more paper-thin. Then again, after the scummy way CyanogenMod treated OnePlus, I’m not exactly surprised.