Google's Linux-based Android mobile platform is rapidly gaining traction around the world. Recent reports suggest that it is on a trajectory to become the dominant mobile operating system in China, a region with a large population of mobile Internet users and enormous growth potential.
Although this may seem like an unambiguous victory for Google on the surface, the implications are actually not that clear. It's important to understand that the Chinese mobile ecosystem is producing its own variant of Android, called OPhone. It's a fork of the platform that largely cuts out Google as the middleman. The fork offers Chinese handset makers and mobile carriers considerable autonomy, because it allows them to circumvent the licensing policies and technical mechanisms that Google has traditionally used to exercise control over the platform.
Like most Linux-based mobile platforms, Android is not entirely open source. The core operating system consists of the GPL-licensed Linux kernel and an Apache-licensed middleware and userspace stack. Several key components at the higher levels of the platform—particularly the Android market and several other pieces of Google-branded software—are proprietary. Device makers that want to use include those components on their products have to commercially license the software from Google.
In our recent in-depth coverage of the Android fragmentation issue, we explained that Google uses its ownership of the Android Market as leverage to ensure interoperability between Android devices and to encourage a certain degree of consistency. In addition to paying licensing fees, Android Market licensees must also demonstrate that their products meet the strict requirements of Google's compatibility specification.
As the sole arbiter of Android's dominant application delivery channel, Google has enormous control over the platform and how it is used. This is an extremely effective tool for preventing platform-level fragmentation and discouraging vendors from building forks that deviate from upstream Android in ways that might diminish application compatibility across devices.
From the perspective of some carriers and handset makers, the downside is that it precludes certain kinds of deep customization and makes them beholden to Google and Google's stewardship of the third-party application ecosystem. It's possible, however, for handset makers and mobile carriers to replace the parts that are controlled exclusively by Google and integrate their own alternatives—thus allowing them to adopt Android without having to make any concessions to the American search giant.
That is exactly what the Chinese mobile industry is doing with OPhone. They are creating a completely distinct third-party Android software ecosystem that is independent from Google and they are building a heavily-customized userspace stack that integrates with completely different Web services and allows them to deliver the kind of user experience that they want.
In effect, they are using Android—but not Google's Android. They don't need Google's Android Market and they aren't necessarily integrating with Google's search or other services. When you think about it in those terms, it makes Android's ascent towards dominance in Asia seem like a hollow victory for Google.
The success of OPhone and the potential opportunity to compete head on with Google in the mobile space by building an Android fork is starting to gain the attention of some of Google's rivals in the region. Recent reports suggest that Chinese search giant Baidu and its software partners Tencent and TekMobile are planning to build their own Android-like operating system. It's unclear if they will use Android as a base, but it seems likely.
Although the growing dominance of Android forks in China isn't inherently beneficial to Google, there is a silver lining for the company. It validates Google's message that Android is an open platform and it could encourage broader participation around Google's code base. Maintaining a fork of a large code base is an enormous pain because it becomes difficult to incorporate upstream improvements as the fork diverges.
It's possible that the companies behind OPhone and other forks will actually contribute some of their improvements to Google's own code base (and the upstream Linux kernel itself) as a result of their efforts to augment the platform. Google's decision to use the permissive Apache license means that it's not mandatory for OPhone's developers to disclose their userspace improvements, but they have an incentive to get code upstream so that they will have a smaller delta to worry about maintaining.
As China's population of mobile Internet users grows, we could see Android take center stage and play a prominent role in shaping the country's mobile technology landscape. Although Android may be destined for ubiquity in China, it's clear that it won't be Google calling the shots.
Source: ars technica