Google Android – Closed Source

on September 20, 2016

I think Google may make Android proprietary in 2017.

Google has launched Android N but, without the ability to distribute updates, the software is virtually useless. To make matters worse, I think Google is effectively doing research and development where its competitors benefit more than it does.

Android M (6.0) is currently on just 18.7% of Google’s Android devices, despite having been available for almost a year. That corresponds to the penetration one would expect with virtually no updates being made. In contrast, iOS 9 is available on well over 90% of all devices and is about to be quickly replaced with iOS 10. This is a massive problem because it means any innovations Google makes to Android to compete against iOS, Windows or China will take four years to fully penetrate its user base. In my opinion, this renders the innovation worse than useless as it will be fully visible to the competition who can copy it and get it to market long before Google can.

A great example of this is Now on Tap which allows context based search from anywhere on the device. I have long believed this is a stroke of genius as Google currently only has 41% coverage of the Digital Life pie but this feature allows Google to collect data as if it owned 100%. The net result will be greater understanding of its users and better targeting of its advertisements — meaning higher prices, driving revenues and better margins.

Unfortunately, this service requires low level changes to be made in the Android Open Source Package (AOSP) so the device has to have version 6.0 (Marshmallow)or later in order for this service to work. Currently, only 19% of Google’s ecosystem users on Android have access to this feature despite it being available for a year. This, combined with the endemic fragmentation that hobbles the user experience relative to iOS, is a major reason why I think Google services in Android devices generate 50% of the revenue they do on iOS.

The only way I think Google can fix this problem is to take complete control of Android, culminating in the migration of the Android Run Time (ART) from the Android Open Source Package (AOSP) into Google’s own proprietary Google Mobile Services (GMS). This would render the open source piece of Android to being just a kernel with the real functionality of the device being controlled from within GMS which is fully under Google’s control. This would fix both the software distribution problem and the endemic fragmentation but could or would probably result in an outcry from the open source community as well as attract more scrutiny from regulators.

Google has long been an advocate for open source software and the backlash it would receive from developers when/if it moves in this direction would be severe. However, the recent loss in its war with Oracle has given Google the perfect excuse to close down its version of Android and blame Oracle when developers complain. In Marshmallow, Google has been forced to use Oracle standard libraries for the Android Run Time — Google has effectively lost control of the software roadmap for the runtime. This is something Google simply cannot afford and, when it presents its proprietary version, it can point the finger at Oracle as the reason for having to make the move. Furthermore, the AOSP will remain in open source but its relevance will have been reduced to being just a kernel rather than a fully-fledged OS.

There are already signs of this beginning to happen as Google is set to launch hardware which it has “put more thought into” and become “more opinionated about”. The Nexus line of devices is set to disappear to be replaced with devices designed by and branded with Google with the manufacturer (HTC) being completely absent.

For the creators of Android forks such as Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, Cyanogen, and so on, this means they will also be forced down the same road, resulting in a series of proprietary operating systems all based on a common kernel. For developers, this will make their lives generally easier as developing apps for Google Android devices will become much easier but more work will be required to also develop for others. I suspect this will force makers of Google Android devices to take Google’s software as they have almost nowhere to go until the EU decides to step in and force Google to change its practices around how it licenses the right to put Google Play on devices.

This has been a gradual process as the scope of GMS has been increasing for the last three years but, at Google I/O 2017, I think this move will become much more visible. I think Google has very little choice because, at the end of the day, its fortunes will be driven by revenue growth from Android as iOS is grinding to a halt. I think a bit of developer anger is better than a $100bn loss in value.