The ‘open and free’ Android is no longer what anyone wants to buy (or sell)

The open Android is the most important Android.

Android is one of the largest and most popular collections of open source software that has even seen the light of day. But the Android you’re getting when you buy the next important phone isn’t, and we have to wonder if anyone really cares.

Open source and “free and open” doesn’t mean free as in getting something that doesn’t cost money. It can mean that, and in many cases still does, but it doesn’t have to be a zero-cost thing. Most electronic things you buy are using open-source software somewhere to make them work and even companies you would never equate with free-as-in-you-don’t-pay, like Apple and Microsoft, use open source software. The people writing the “free” software deserve to be paid if that’s their wish and Intel, Cisco and other companies who aren’t Mozilla are selling software that’s open source.

Most any gadget you can buy uses open source software at some level.

This is great. There is no reason you shouldn’t profit from hard work and when a company or person gives a gift of code to other developers they shouldn’t lose revenue because of it. I like to think I’m paying for the time it took to build, test and debug something in a case like this, and that’s usually well worth the asking price.

Android has used this idea from day one to grow into one of the most-used pieces of software ever. One difference is that the license used for much of Android lets someone (anyone) use the code, change the code, do whatever with the code and not make those changes available to the rest of us. We’ve talked before about how this benefits everyone involved in the making of a phone and why it’s part of the reason Android is something so many people want to use in the thing they are trying to sell.

But we can go deeper. I’ll risk saying that the things that make Android something most of us want to use are the things that were never open source and never will be: every single app. When you add these two things together you end up with something that is neither open or free, and it ends up marginalizing the things that are. This builds a very wide gap between the Android that’s free for anyone to use and do anything with and the Android that makes all the money.

Open source is why Android has over 80% worldwide market share: it’s free to use and cheap to customize.

This history and some new rumors have plenty of folks concerned. Around the water cooler, talk suggests that much of what will be great in Android O is really a collection of things that will be great in the Google Pixel 2 or whatever its name will be. When we say great, we mean things that improve the lives of the people using it. The changes at the building block level are awesome in their own right, and so far what we’ve seen will all become part of Android and available for everyone who wants to download the code. But when it comes to the user-facing side, the idea that Google can keep exciting stuff for its own products is a concern to open-source evangelists like me.

It’s important to remember that this is no different to what any other phone manufacturer is doing. Samsung takes the free Android and runs it through a development team to produce something wildly different that will never be open sourced. But Samsung is not Google and is not charged with furthering the entire platform. In fact, Samsung can do these things — as can Amazon at the other end of the spectrum — because Google has been committed to further developing the platform and gives away the code. Google is now not only the platform maintainer but is an end-user for Android code, too. This can get tricky, and not in a good way.

Google has never said it is not going to add new and exciting features to Android as a whole.

If you only read one thing here make sure this it that thing. We’re speculating on other speculations and tossing it together with what we’ve seen in the past. Nothing would make any of us happier than someone from Google saying we are chock full of nonsense and it has every intention of adding so many cool things to Android that we get dizzy hearing about them all. But this entire industry thrives on the what-ifs.

What if Google adds the required changes to AOSP and stops there? AOSP is part of a fully functional operating system and is easier than most people think to build for a mobile device. But the end result is not what most people want, and pre-installed and configured apps and services are Android’s real draw.

We want the next Pixel to be great and unique, but we want those features to be available to others. That’s the tension.

My Raspberry Pi smartphone works just fine, but I’d rather use a phone with Gmail and all the other benefits that aren’t open source so it’s just a novelty. That’s the reason why the Raspberry Pi phone you can build at home with $90 worth parts isn’t something we’re all rushing out to make or buy. The Galaxy S or Moto G or any other phone is just better at doing what we want a phone to do.

All the companies making Android phones are capable of doing great things — even the brands you don’t like. But there are some things that are better because they are universal and those are all part of the open Android. We want the next Pixel to be great and have features that make it a great buy, but we want most of those features to be available to others. That’s the tension.

The Android Open Source Project is an amazing thing and Google spends a good bit of money to keep it maintained and available. We hope it stays that way for a long time.

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