back to article Why Android houses should give Google the 'fork you'

As details leak about just how closed Google's Android development can be, the billion-dollar question is why mobile handset manufacturers bother to play ball with Mountain View at all. It's not so much Google's practice of keeping Android development closed for prolonged periods, but rather its favoritism toward certain …

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Coat

Tablets are like top hats

You don't really need one, but if you're going to invest in one it might as well be the expensive model everyone recognises.

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Pint

Each to their own

But I prefer one that fits me and does exactly what I need a hat to do

/weak metaphor

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Especially as, for a change, the apple one is not the expensive one!

£750 for an LG Optimus, (3G+WiFi)!

Android tablets will not outsell Apple until they price them reasonably, on this score Amazon will probably win with their locked down tablets as they will be in the price range people want to pay, i.e. under £250.

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Meh

That's the point though

Hat's don't need to do anything, they are purely cosmetic, there is nothing they can do that a stormproof umbrella or a parasol can't do better... unless your skiing I guess.

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sure thing...

...which is why I'm waiting for windows 8 devices. big iphones don't hold much sway with me. No keyboard means no work. Consumer yes, but everything for everyone single devices will be king. only one OS can do all of that at present: with a massive game library, pro level industry leading applications, and a pedigree and veteran of the os wars: windows.

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Angel

I don't understand this fan-boy like dependency on a maybe/soon to be future amazon tablet. I paid $199 for a Barnes and Noble Colour Nook, in less than 2-hours had found, downloaded and routed it to android 2.2 and now have a perfectly working, android 7-inch tablet with Wifi. Amazon is going to save us how?

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Rob
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Angel

Good position

Amazon is in a good position as well, with a forked version they can offer there own App Store as a fork from whispernet which supports the Kindle. There are already multiple Droid App Markets out there, but to have one with a large brand name backing would surely give it some legs.

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Hmmm...

"Yes, this requires the handset manufacturers to become highly proficient in software, something they historically have not been".

A rather important point. You only have to see what the once mighty Nokia did to Symbian, a full mobile multitasking operating system. They bought in an OS years ahead of everyone, and still managed to screw it up.

You only have to see the delays handset owners have to currently endure when waiting for Android updates to see how unprepared manufacturers are for providing reasonable software support. Getting an update within 6 months of Google releasing it is currently considered "pretty good". I doubt supporting an entire OS fork will make things any faster or reliable.

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Facepalm

Hmmm...

You only have to see what the once mighty Nokia did to Symbian"

I don't think it's a case of what Nokia did to Symbian but what Nokia failed to do with Symbian, internal competition between teams, multiple APIs and an announcement that were were developing Symbian but then they were going to drop it in favour of webos, makes pointy hair boss look competent!!!!!

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/03/10/nokia_ui_saga/

I had a N?? (can't remember which one, may have been a N97) and apart from the somewhat cumbersome location of some of the applications I always thought it was the first real upgrade of a mobile phone I had since I got rid of my 6210. My new android has most of its features switched off because the battery life is so crap!!!! You just can’t win!

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Anonymous Coward

This is the best part of (F)OSS

You're free to fork it but you'll have to maintain it!

If handset manufacturers think life is tough with the free Android, they're free to try Windows.

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Mushroom

You don't have to maintain it.

Amazon have already forked Linux internally.

You don't have to roll patches to the upstream project if you don't want to.

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FAIL

Trouble is

Trouble is the whole point of Android is to make a common standard platform that all can understand.

One of the biggest arguments AGAINST the success of Android is the cell company's idiotic need to mess with the installation, changing the look of the UI, packaging a load of bloatware, not being forthcoming with updates. Now we get Amazon taking this rather further, presumably to enforce some kind of vendor lock-in like Apple.

The phone companies are not interested in software, they want to sell units, which is why Android was a gift to them.

Make no mistake though, Android happens to be the litigation target because of its success. Any other successful competitor to Apple and Microsoft would see exactly the same patent/copyright/whatever heat and it has nothing whatsoever to do with Android's openness or otherwise.

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"One of the biggest arguments AGAINST the success of Android is the cell company's idiotic need to mess with the installation, changing the look of the UI, packaging a load of bloatware..."

Too bloody right, a colleague got a Vodafone Desire HD when they came out, and it's a dream to use - very little bloat etc. Another colleague bought one on recommendation - unfortunately after Vodafone had enough time to fuck it up - I helped him install a custom ROM so he could have something other than a shiny brick. It works like a dream now.

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@My Alter Ego

The second colleague actually suffered a double fiddled with whammy.

First HTC put sense on it (which is actually pretty good as far as manufacturer mods go), and then Vodafone install their crap on top of that.

Carriers have a long history of not being able to leave things alone. I don't know of anyone who went with a particular carrier because of something they added. You look at price, how many years you'll be locked in, at the included minutes and data. That's pretty much it. They just won't accept they should be a dumb pipe.

In exchange you get a hideous colour scheme (I'm particularly pointing at Orange here!), and you're lucky if you ever get a firmware update again in the next 2 years (again thinking of Orange and Nokia Symbian handsets).

So yes, there is something worse than a phone manufacturer supporting a fork. The carrier badly adding bits to a fork!

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Forked to a faretheewell?

If that's the direction that things go in then I think we can expect that Google will swallow their pride and change the software license terms of the OS to something which cannot be forked but only skinned - something akin to the old Java Community Process, but leaving them the final say.

Otherwise we'll end up with a horribly balkanized Android that could leave the door open to a resurgence of MS in the mobile space, and really, who wants that?

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Devil

Terrible Plan

Forking Android is exactly what the industry doesn't need. The Android ecosystem is already fragmented enough, the last think App developers need is 3 new Android derivatives to support. We already have iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Android, Bada, Symbian (for now) and about 5 smaller players. I'm hoping this all boils down to 3 competing operating systems and the others die out.

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Anonymous Coward

Aye, totally forked.

It's not just the app developers that would be screwed by such a development, it's the platform developers (e.g. Qualcomm, TI, NVIDIA, Atmel), and anyone who is expected to provide the low-level implementations that support various android APIs. Between build support, test environment, developer sanity, customer support, etc., it would be a complete nightmare.

I suspect it would be fairly painful for the integrators as well, as right now they can indirectly share some cost between bug fixes, etc, and it also allows them to focus on their core strengths (hardware selection, unit design, fabrication, marketing. . . notice I didn't list OS development?). To be honest, I can't see anyone who wins from forking android.

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I think you have a good point, for a change...

I have to agree with your point re: WebOS v Android fork. For Samsung to buy, or buy heavily in to WebOS would shirley cost tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

Or option two, fork Android, hire a hundred top Java / GUI types at film star wages, say 150,000 dollars a year. Then kick some Mountain View arse! Cost 15 million a year. Tight hard / software integration is key to a responsive system, whatever the application. This could be double win for them.

Or am I seriously underestimating how much good programmers / designers earn nowadays?

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Paris Hilton

Nope...

The problem is:

You can't get 100 top JAVA/GUI guys & gals at one time.

They won't like to work in a corporate environment different to Apple and Google.

And for what? You have to earn 15 Millions with your handsets in the first place to spent it.

Better try to bribe Google with 5 mill or something to do what the handset maker wants...

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Anonymous Coward

Underestimating a bit

I am no film star, and no top Java / GUI type. Best I can offer is a PhD. Maybe I'm lucky.

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/walrusclap

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The problem then becomes how do they market that OS, Google will surly move against anyone which tries to market an OS as Android without there software on the devices. Which means they will have to re-market there product as another OS, and consumers will think it a completely different OS and even a new one and so far every new OS introduce to the tablet market has been a complete failure.

The tablet market is evolving similar to what happen to the mobile market in 2007 Apple dominates, Android come in slow and steady, with numerous products which failed to take off, but slowly over the next 4 they come to own over 50% of the market. People often forget that Android currently has around 25% of the tablet market at this time and growing.

An we have to see how successful Amazon underpowered hardware and an obsolete OS will truly be, I do not think they will be as successful as many people think they will plus they risk destroying there successful Kindle reader market before it as really taken off.

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Anonymous Coward

You mean Nokia (53% in 2007) dominated then Apple and Google came along to take the profits and market share. BTW Googles stat's give activated honycomb (all versions) 1.4% of the total Android userbase, which puts it around the 2.3 million mark while the ipad is around the 40 million mark. Maybe someone sold a shed load of Android 2.x tablets but that dosn't seem likly (B&N look like they will sell 4 million nooks in their 1st year but i doubt even 10% of those are being bought to use as Android devices). The tablet market seems to be a lot more like the ipod/pmp market than the phone market.

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Anonymous Coward

not a new approach

You are obviously forgetting HTC, and other Android licencees who also ship Windows Phone handsets. Its quite OK, I can totally understand why anyone might overlook these devices.

The problem isn't the OS choice available to the manufacturers, but that the damned customers just can't seem to stop buying Android handsets. Frankly, it doesn't bode at all well for Nokia.

Seriously, forks are tempting short-term solutions, but Amazon are likely going to find themselves out-innovated and uncompetitive immediately ICS hit; or Jellybean. Unless they want to play code merging games, or just contribute their changes back and re-fork. I'm sure Google is cool with either approach; they at least seem to understand open source.

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Megaphone

Crystal ball gazing is of course always fun but should be, as far as possible,..........

..................evidence based.

". Lenovo claims that its rival has only sold 20,000 of the 1 million GalaxyTabs shipped."

Now, as I have said elsewhere, I do not have the "inside track" on Samsung's sales figures but I would hesitate before I quoted the CEO of a major Chinese rival to South Korea's largest electronics company as any kind of evidence. Especially when, AFAIK, he provided *nothing* to back up that claim. In other words it appears (so far) to be a completely unsupported *allegation*.

Furthermore, how long has the original 'Tab been out? A long time in terms of the rate of development and change in this very young market. The current generation of Samsung's offerings in both tab and phone space appear to be attracting *way* more attention than the release of their very first tab ever did. If we want *evidence* that they may make a real impact we could perhaps point to the "lawyering" from Cupertino which borders on the desperate - they clearly do not have a relaxed attitude to the challenge that Samsung's products may pose them. *My* crystal ball is fairly cloudy at the moment and I am content to await events in this, still, very young and immature market.

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Thing is the Guardian will almost certainly have asked for a quote from Samsung before they broke the story, and yet there is no response. Samsung have (as far as I can tell) completely failed to respond which is tacit acknowledgement that even if the g-tab's sell through was a little better, it wasn't materially better.

Samsung could quash all these rumours of terrible sell through by publishing numbers, after all it's a year later, they must know by know what it was for the first two or three quarters. But they won't, in fact it's notable that they haven't even published shipment numbers since those first early claims for the g-tab.

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D2G
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Uhhh... NO

Because together they are more powerful then apart... And not to mention, Google innovates and has influence well beyond Android..

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one for all

That's what killed Linux as a contender. If all the effort that had gone into all the seperate distros had been focussed in one coherent operating system the world would be very different.

It's just a shame all the little egos can't just get along and value being different more than they value being successful.

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Anonymous Coward

"Amazon appears to be the first serious Apple competitor"

I thought that was Samsung. Or was it Motorola? No, it was HP. Asus?

Well, if not any of those, I'm sure the next one to step up will really be serious.

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What's your stake in the outcome?

Matt, I agree with your argument, but you should make it clear that the path you're proposing will be of benefit to your own company. If Android is forked, especially by multiple vendors, it will make it almost impossible for app developers to support all the versions without resorting to development tools like Strobe's that are based on HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.

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Apps, apps, apps

You mention it, but immediately brush over it- removing app compatibility with Android would be a total killer. WebOS and Windows Phone haven't met with much success for many reasons, but the lack of apps is a very real, very important reason.

I know plenty of Reg commenters will chime in and say "well, all I need is my POP e-mail client and a telnet prompt", but we're not typical users. The typical user loves their apps, and when their friends start talking about apps they can't run on their phone they are going to start looking at it as a hinderance.

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FAIL

Apps

Agreed, I know of countless people who purchased iPhones for specific apps (like Grindr) many switching from Android because they didn't like the awful FB app lol Amazon are probably about the only company which could get away with forking Android. As someone else picked up above, you only need to look at how long it takes Android manufacturers to produce OS updates to see this won't work. Buying a handset is a bit of a crap shoot as to whether it even can be updated to any future version. Too often, manufacturers just release a new version of the handset and then orphan the old one. Makes Apple look very benevolent by comparison...

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Silver badge

Legal problems

Forking Android doesn't solve the legal problems. If the Chocolate Factory version of Android infringes MS patents, it is very likely that a forked version would infringe them as well.

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Anonymous Coward

According to what happened in US courts so far

the Chocolate Factory version of Android does not infringe on any MS patents. And we, my friends, are all waiting for the day when MS lawyers will knock on Google's door looking for extortion money. For the moment Microsoft shows it prefers easy wins against small, easy to terrorize Android forkers. Why risk a bloody war against Google who prefers to stand up and fight against patent infringement lawsuits.

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@AC

A better argument is that, if you fork the code, you have the chance to remove the offending code rather than wait for someone else to do it that doesn't seem interested at present. Mast of your own destiny and all that.

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Hats off

to the author. This is the first objective piece I have read on the current state of the mobile phone/tablet development environment I have read in a long time.

One of the problems facing the industry must be the constant requirement to introduce something new. In the old days I used to be given a new Nokia every 12 months when I renewed my contract. The contracts have stretched first to 18 months and now I see 24 month contracts being offered. Will there come a point were a consumer will acquire a phone and keep it for 5 years? I would have thought that this would be of benefit to the telco's who would avoid the costs of subsidising new handsets.

Andy

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The problem with these longer contract renewal dates is that 18 months into the contract the phones start to feel very limitted when running apps.

I got a new 24 month contract Apr'10 with a HTC Desire and I now have to pull apps off it due to the lack of useable memory.

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Pirate

@Gordon

Oh come one! This is a tech audience, and you want us to believe that your phone has magically lost some of the power it had a year ago? Some of the RAM's jumped the fence? One or two of the MHz just not pulling their weight any more? All you get with a newer phone is a little more space on a clean slate, and a nice big bill that the phone carrier is happy to split into 24 chunks for you, so that you don't have to explain to the Missus why you just spent £500 on a phone.

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No its not

There's nothing objective about this piece as demonstrated by all the above comments. It's full of holes based on self interest and conjecture. He may have a logical point, but from a consumers perspective the idea of a forked Android means I would never buy an Amazon tablet. I want choice and not another version of Apple.

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Say it with me

You are not the consumer they are targeting.

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Anonymous Coward

HTC Desire

HTC Desire has around 150MB of user space to store apps, now you can add a 32GB card but that dosn't help if the app won't run from it.

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I never claimed the phone had 'lost' memory, however the problem is that some of the core programs are getting larger each time they update. A lot of these aren't able to be moved to the SD card to run.

I also assume that the Android updates take space from the same usable 150mb, hence the fact that HTC have stated that they cannot fit an update to Android 2.3 onto the phone.

When the phone was first released 150mb seemed like a lot, now not so much.

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WTF?

What?

"Try as they might, they can't seem to generate sufficient "wow" with their hardware/Android combinations to muster much brand loyalty and, in return, chunkier profit margins."

Oh please. Samsung, LG and the like can't even manage to code a simple launcher replacement, what makes you think they'd be capable of forking Android and doing a good job of it? Amazon might succeed with their fork but only in using Android as a locked-down but quite-functional firmware replacement - not as a credible mobile OS.

Like it or not, Google do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to Android. It wouldn't make much sense for these companies to fork it now. Maybe by "Ice Cream Sandwich" when it's a credible phone *and* tablet OS it will be more forkable as a lot of the hard work will have been done, but right now I doubt it. Plus when they do fork it they need to retain compatibility with the vast number of Android apps available otherwise people will shun the fork like they shun Windows Mobile and WebOS.

Of course if Google starts throwing their weight around with Motorola things might change. I'm sure they're being watched closely. But it's a bit too early to predict the death of the Open Handset Alliance, methinks.

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Forget forking

Forking means (in the end) incompatibility. Will a handset/tablet manufacturer risk being known as 'that Android platform where not all apps work on' ? Guess...

At first thought, forking is so obvious, until you start thinking of all the consequences. Suddenly it is *you* that has to do the maintenance and development, *you* have to make sure you stay compatible, *you* have to merge in those shiny new features that the official platform got. And for what gains?

Many embedded platforms I know are bloody expensive and you are *still* at the mercy of the vendor to get bugs fixed and features in. This one's free, and fairly open. Smile and be happy, you clearly haven't seen much of the embedded world.

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FAIL

Fork?

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

--signed Unix

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Silver badge

This could be all we'll ever have

The barriers to entry for creating your own operating system were traditionally low. Snarf a copy of Linux, add some drivers, GUI-fy it and with 20 person*years you'd have something that could put up a credible performance at an industry electronics show.

However, once you try to make money off that your £1M of investment becomes a £gig. and takes years. Primarily because of patents. The consequence is, that until there is a radical change in hardware - comparable to the difference between procedural and object orientated languages, the O/S's we have today are probably the only ones we'll have for a long time. Just like car engines are either petrol or diesel ... oh yes, or electric (mustn't forget the C5)

Faced with the obstacles of coming up with something new and legally acceptable, you can't blame the phone companies for adopting a "Bones-esque" attitude of "Dammit Jim, We're a phone maker, not a computer company".

Under the chilling legal circumstances, sticking with Android may be the least worst option.

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Anonymous Coward

Oh dear....

This is possibly the biggest load of nonsense I've ever read on El Reg, further diversification is the very last thing Android needs. What's the point of a secondary incompatible Android fork. What Android needs is a complete decoupling of the OS core from the vendor overlays, so that I can pick up the latest Android straight from goggle without having to wait for my device vendor to polish it. I don't even use Sense on my HTC as GoLauncher is much much better, now if only I could get rid of Sense without rooting my phone.

The issue Android device vendors have is that they are all chasing the same design goals, it's all bigger screens and thinner devices. I really don't give a toss if one phone is 1mm thinner than another, in fact make one 5mm thicker and put a f**king bigger battery in it, and maybe it wlil actually be usable. Oh, and give us more choice of hardware keyboards please.

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Thank you, this is exactly what I was thinking.

I have a Motorola Backflip. It was one of the earliest Motorola Android phones, and has pretty bad specs. I still love using it and would not part with it for any HTC AwesomeCoolName. Why? Because of the "wow-factor" in the software? MotoBlur is a nightmare! (I am now a happy user of CM instead.) I keep using it because the form factor is exceptional and suits my needs perfectly. You can't find such a fantastic "touchpad" on any other Android phone. The hardware keyboard is HUGE. (Although the keys could be a little better.) I have been a happy user of my Backflip ever since I could kick the Moto additions out and just enjoy the phone design.

Phone manufacturers should stay FAR away from modding (not to mention forking) Android, and concentrate on making better phones, and/or by complete accident giving more choice to the customer instead of aping each other. Then maybe I may pay more attention to their brand.

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On the other hand

Forking Android doesn't get Microsoft of their backs, and it would prevent Google from helping them in the patent battle, for example, Google just sold a patent(s) to HTC so it could countersue Apple.

Have you noticed how everyone seems to think that Amazon's tablet is going to be a contender despite the fact that noone has seen it yet? It has nothing to do with the tablet or the software, the big point is that Amazon, like Apple, easily have hundreds of millions of registered customers ordering from them is easy.

That's the reason why one of the first things I did with my galaxy tab, bought second hand but like new in eBay, was to download the kindle app and buy a couple of books.

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Note

"Making matters worse, Google's top tablet-market Android licensee, Samsung, is reportedly struggling to sell its Android-based tablets. Lenovo claims that its rival has only sold 20,000 of the 1 million GalaxyTabs shipped."

Note that's talking about the original Galaxy Tab, which was a rather slow, unpolished, chunky, 7" slab of Android 2.x 'meh'. It's not anything to do with the current Galaxy Tab 10.1 and impending 8.9 and 7.7, which seem to be rather more eagerly anticipated.

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