Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Google’s Iron Grip on Android

In the previously-linked article on the myth of Android-first apps, Steve Cheney posits that there are so many variables for Android developers that it makes quality assurance a nightmare:

All of my conversations over the past year with Android developers, 3rd party dev shops, more mature startups developing on both platforms and investors confirm a simple hard reality: building and releasing on Android costs 2-3x more than iOS. This is due to a multitude of reasons: less sophisticated tools, generally more cumbersome APIs, fewer exposed advanced features, enormous QA issues brought on by fragmentation, etc.

One of the ways in which this could be mitigated is if Google took much greater control of the platform. And, indeed, they are. Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica:

If a company does ever manage to fork [the Android Open Source Project], clone the Google apps, and create a viable competitor to Google’s Android, it’s going to have a hard time getting anyone to build a device for it. In an open market, it would be as easy as calling up an Android OEM and convincing them to switch, but Google is out to make life a little more difficult than that. Google’s real power in mobile comes from control of the Google apps—mainly Gmail, Maps, Google Now, Hangouts, YouTube, and the Play Store. These are Android’s killer apps, and the big (and small) manufacturers want these apps on their phones. Since these apps are not open source, they need to be licensed from Google.

There are effectively two Androids. There’s the Android which is open source and can be downloaded by anyone, compiled, and put on a flash drive which — paired with the appropriate hardware — can be a smartphone. Then there’s the Android that people actually use. This is related to the other Android insomuch as it is also named “Android”, and that it shares the same underpinnings. But third-party manufacturers and Google themselves have used all that open source code to build a platform which is becoming increasingly closed.

I am not, by any means, suggesting that Android is closed in the same way that iOS or Windows Phone are. But flagship features like Google Now and Google Maps — otherwise known as the reason people buy Android phones — are all closed source, and are only available to end users because of contracts between OEMs and an increasing-controlling Google.